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

Write by number

Stop reinventing the wheel, use story templates

I once asked fiber artist Jason Pollen how he could be creative under the constraints of designing textiles on assignment for clients like Chanel and Donna Karan.

Write by number

Mechanical painting Mark Chadwick used remote-control toy cars and power tools to create this painting. He made all decisions — including colors, number of layers, and type of brush — by drawing instructions out of a hat. So … is this art? Science? A parlor trick? Or just a beautiful painting with a compelling story?

“There’s a whole universe to explore within the color yellow,” he said.

The most creative people see constraints, rules and guidelines as tools for creativity, not obstacles. After all, few people want to read an article, no matter how creative, that doesn’t use basic standards of, say, spelling, grammar and punctuation.

One of the best ways to use constraints for creativity is to template your writing.

Template your writing.

Good writing is at least as much science as art. And writing templates can help you:

1. Save readers time. Once they’re familiar with the template, readers spend less time learning a story’s structure. That reduces processing time and effort. Which is why:

  • Companies like Procter & Gamble use standardized one-page memo templates to improve productivity.
  • Many of the most popular business and consumer publication departments are standardized templates. (Familiarity oftentimes breeds content, not contempt.)
  • Some organizations template everything from case studies to Web pages to employee profiles.

2. Save communicators time. “We spend too much time reinventing the wheel!” one of my clients told me just this morning. Templates save writers time they can spend:

  • Understanding the customer
  • Doing background research
  • Finessing the details (templates don’t write leads, after all, or build arguments)
  • Working on juicier or more complicated assignments

It’s tough to argue with results like “easier to read” and “easier to write.”

What to template

So what types of pieces should you template? Standardize your press releases, Web pages, proposals, case studies — even your personality profiles.

At Wylie Communications, we’ve created:

  • Web page templates for ExxonMobil, Saint Luke’s Health System, PetSmart Charities and Tellabs
  • Proposal templates for General Dynamics C4 Systems and Public Strategies Inc.
  • Employee communication templates — including CEO notes, strategy stories, awards stories, department profiles, employee roundups, event stories, benefits news, and Q&As — for BaylorScott&White Health and Direct Energy

The secret is to develop standard structures that are:

  • Specific enough to meet the needs of the project
  • Flexible enough to cover a variety of subjects
  • Clear enough to get everyone on the same page

Templates at Tellabs

When Tellabs needed a new website, a farflung global team needed to write hundreds of new pages — quickly and consistently. George Stenitzer, then-VP of communications at Tellabs, invited me to help.

I suggested templates.

The templates we created took into account industry trends and Tellabs’ own client research, as well as proven-in-the-lab best writing practices. They included “recipes” for:

  • Headlines
  • Decks
  • Leads
  • Nut graphs
  • Subheads
  • Body sections
  • Lists
  • Tables
  • Refers
  • Calls to action

“Ann’s webpage template guided us with a consistent formula that really works,” Stenitzer says. “A headline, two subheads, [specific targets for] short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, details organized in tables, and a clear call to action — all in 400 words, a two-minute read. Sweet!”

How to create templates

To develop templates for your team:

1. Research proven-in-the-lab best practices for how to:

  • Craft story angles that readers want to read, rather than those you wish they would read
  • Organize copy to draw readers in, pull them through the piece and leave a lasting impression
  • Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
  • Reach even nonreaders with your key messages
  • Optimize for humans, as well as for Google

You should end up with dozens of specific best practices.

Tip: Don’t believe everything you think. Don’t base writing guidelines on gut instinct or outdated techniques you learned in college. You want to develop templates based on solid, contemporary — and also classic — research.

2. Transform research into templates. Tell readers what to do in fill-in-the-blanks templates. Then show them how to do it in a series of annotated, before-and-after writing samples.

3. Roll out the templates. To get everyone is on the same page, roll out your templates with training, practice, feedback and learning tools.

We rolled out the Tellabs templates in two days of training, practice and feedback. Writers left with workbooks, job aids, readability targets and more tools to guide their work after the session.

Because, when you’re back in the office, you want to be able to flip to page 12 for the recipe for, say, a product release or a case study.

Get a customized recipe book

Would you prefer an easier way of getting customized templates into your team’s hands? If so, consider Wylie’s Writing Templates.

Send us samples of your most common types of pieces, along with your client and industry research. We’ll develop customized templates to tell your writers what to do and create annotated writing samples that show them how to do it.

But whichever way you go, make sure your team gets writing templates. Because who has time to keep reinventing the wheel?

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“Loved it! Each tidbit was a nugget of wisdom.”
— Lauren Schiller, senior manager, Global Ethics Communications Programs, Walmart Stores, Inc.

Catch Your Readers in Chicago

Learn to move readers to act at this two-day Master Class

Would you like to learn to write copy that moves people to act? Master a structure that’s proven in the lab to work better than the inverted pyramid? Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand?

If so, please join me at Catch Your Readers, a two-day writer’s Master Class on April 21-22 in Chicago.

Chicago workshop - catch your readers

Win with your pen Your job isn’t to press Send. It’s to get people to 1) pay attention to your message, 2) understand it, 3) remember it and 4) act on it. Learn techniques for achieving those goals at our Chicago Master Class.

Fill your toolbox with tricks.

In two days, you’ll have time to cram your writer’s tool bag with tricks — hard-to-find but easy-to-implement techniques that will help you:

  • Think Like a Reader: Learn to move people to act
  • Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Master a structure that’s been proven in the lab to reach more readers
  • Cut Through the Clutter: Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
  • Lift Your Ideas Off the Page Or Screen: Reach flippers and skimmers, increase readership
  • Edit, write, repeat: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece

Learn more.

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Browse all 2015 Master Classes.

Meet me in Chicago.

I love you, Portland, but I’ve got to say, I think Chicago is the most beautiful city in the United States. You’ve got the history of 20th century architecture reflected in a glittering river. You’ve got buildings by two of my favorite Franks, Mssrs. Lloyd Wright and Gehry. And then there’s that magnificent ‘bean’!

Chicago millennium park

A Gehry, Gehry beautiful place Hit Chicago’s Millennium Park after our spring writing workshop. Photo by Jason Mrachina

Why not make a long weekend of it?

I, for one, will be winding down from the workshop by taking an architectural riverboat cruise, spending my retirement savings on The Magnificent Mile, catching the latest shows at Steppenwolf and Second City, eating whatever Rick Bayless sets in front of me at Topolobampo and ogling the Impressionists at “the best art museum in the world” (TripIt), the Chicago Art Institute.

Maybe we’ll run into each other!

Learn more.

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Browse all 2015 Master Classes.

Save money, earn bonuses.

I have no doubt that this Master Class will be the best money you invest on your professional development this year.

Plus, you can save money and earn more bonuses when you bring a friend, refer a friend or belong to RevUpReadership.com.

Interested? Contact me directly, learn more or register now.

At the workshop, you’ll find out why Amy Kappler, communications specialist, Burgess and Niple, said of my Master Class: You’ll get “a semester’s worth of knowledge in a few hours.”

Learn more.

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Browse all 2015 Master Classes.

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“Most quotes in press releases sound like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons: ‘Wah wah wah wah.’”
— A frustrated PR pro

String readers along

Strings of quotes work when they’re fascinating

When does it make sense to load up your story with quotes? When the people you’re quoting are incredibly quotable.

String readers along

You can quote me on that When is overquoting not overquoting? When clever quotes help move the story forward.

That’s why The New York Times devoted 23% of its word count to quotes in “David Garth, 84, Dies; Consultant Was an Innovator of Political TV Ads.”

On average, the Times devotes 12% of its word count to quotes. That’s according to an analysis we ran of 99 stories in the Dec. 15, 2014, edition of the Times. (We skipped the sports pages.)

Why devote one-quarter of words to quotes?

So why, in the Garth story, did the Times “overquote”? Because the quotees in this story — politicians and politicos like Mario Cuomo, Edward Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Roger Ailes, Al Gore and Garth himself — are incredibly quotable.

That’s no surprise in a world of speechwriting and sloganeering.

So what does “incredibly quotable” look like? And what should you look for in a quote? Here’s some inspiration from the Garth story:

Quote to establish your subject.

What makes Garth worth a 2,000-word obit in the Times? Let an expert in the field establish your central theme.

Mr. Garth was “one of the two people most responsible for the central role of television in modern American politics,” said Robert M. Shrum, a Democratic strategist who worked with him, singling out Charles Guggenheim, an adviser to Robert F. Kennedy, as the other.

Quote for creativity.

Break up the narrative with twist of phrase

In 1977, when Mario M. Cuomo was running for mayor against Mr. Garth’s come-from-behind creation, Edward I. Koch, Mr. Cuomo sardonically demanded: “What hath Garth wrought?”


Mr. Garth handled his share of losers, but his roster of winners was impressive. He claimed a batting average of .730 — “a bit better than Ted Williams’s Major League record of .400,” he said.
“If I throw out five matches,” [Garth] once said, “maybe I’ll start two fires.”
He combined what Jeff Greenfield, the political commentator who worked with Mr. Garth, described as “the single-mindedness of Vince Lombardi with the subtlety of a pile driver,” and he viewed every campaign as a public fight to the death, comparing a campaign to “the arena of the gladiators.”


“He was a political guy who learned how to use television rather than a television guy who learned politics,” [Roger] Ailes said.
“When you grow up fighting for your life, you become a fighter,” Mr. Garth’s sister, Zelda Rosenbloom, once said.
But Mr. Garth was better known for tongue-twisting slogans intended to convey a substantive message. For Mr. Carey: “This year, before they tell you what they want to do, make them show you what they’ve done.”
His wit was biting. Mr. Garth once described Mr. Koch’s last opponent for the mayor’s office, David N. Dinkins, as “so laid back, he’s almost laid out.”


“I said, ‘Listen David,’” Mr. Koch recalled, “‘you want me to kill my mother? Tell me what time and where?’”
Mr. Greenfield recalled that “sometimes I had to remind him that it is not a violation of the First Amendment for the other guy to put on ads, too.”
When Mr. Gore was asked about Mr. Koch’s comment that Jews “would be crazy” to vote for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mr. Gore replied, “My contract with David Garth prohibits me from commenting.”


“After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?”

How do your quotes stand up to these? Are you quoting carefully … or overquoting?

Master the Art of Storyelling

“Nobody ever sold anybody anything by boring them to death.” — David Ogilvy

Ogilvy was right. If you want someone to buy what you’re selling — whether you’re pitching products and services or programs and ideas — you must first engage them. And nothing draws readers in quite as well as creative material.

In Master the Art of Storytelling, a two-day creative writing master class on July 29-30 in San Francisco, you’ll learn how to bring your messages to life with storytelling, wordplay and metaphor. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Grab Attention With Feature Stories: Craft creative leads and kickers
  • Make Your Copy More Colorful: Engage readers with fun facts, juicy details
  • Play With Your Words: Spice up your headlines, leads and sound bites with wordplay
  • Master the Art of the Storyteller: Tap ‘the most powerful form of human communication’
  • Add Meaning With Metaphor: Clarify complex concepts with analogy
  • Edit, write, repeat: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece

Learn more about the Master Class.

Browse all 2015 Master Classes.

Would you like to hold an in-house Master the Art of Storytelling workshop? Contact Ann directly.

Register for Master the Art of Storytelling Workshop in San Francisco.

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“If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.”
— Benjamin Franklin, founding father of the United States

Reframe the problem

Break an egg? Make an omelet

Don’t you love the way H&R Block reframed tax season as refund season this year? So do I.

Reframe the problem - break an egg

Are you telling me the other guy makes you break your own eggs? That’s the art of reframing. Image by Diego Diaz

Take a tip from H&R Block: Got a negative story to tell? Reframe it.

How P.T. Barnum reframed a truckload of white salmon

Listen in as campaign advisor Bruno Gianelli schools White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler, on The West Wing:

TOBY Listen, the OMB’s gonna come out with a recommendation for a new way to calculate the poverty level.

BRUNO Show of hands?

TOBY No. But the formula raises the poverty level 2,000 in change.

BRUNO So what is it now?

TOBY 20,000 a year. The problem is we’re without a campaign and with 4 million new poor people.

BRUNO That’s the problem?

TOBY Yeah.

BRUNO Not that someone making 21,000 a year is considered comfortable?

TOBY [looks at Bruno] We’re working on that one, too.

BRUNO You keep working on that, also the other thing.


BRUNO The same way P.T. Barnum sold a truckload of white salmon.

They stop walking and face each other.

BRUNO By sticking labels on them that said “Guaranteed not to go pink in the can.” …

TOBY What the hell are you —

BRUNO Are you telling me this formula has been broken for years and the other guys haven’t fixed it? [pause] Like that.

Is there another way to look at your bad news story? How could you reframe it?

Catch Your Readers

If you want to Catch Your Readers, you need to think like a reader. Then you need to use the bait your reader likes, not the bait you like. Problem is, many of the techniques we’ve institutionalized in business communication writing are not the bait the reader likes.

In Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on April 21-22 in Chicago and on October 27-28 in Washington, D.C. — we’ll debunk destructive writing myths, how-we’ve-always-done-its and relics from Writing 101. (You’re not still stuffing all those W’s into the lead, are you?!) You’ll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.

Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

  • Think Like a Reader: Move people to act
  • Go Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Master a structure that’s been proven in the lab to reach more readers
  • Cut Through the Clutter: Make every piece you write measurably easier to read and understand
  • Lift Your Ideas Off the Page Or Screen: Reach flippers and skimmers, increase readership
  • Edit, write, repeat: Bring your laptop and a story to work on, write and rewrite, get and give feedback, and leave with a totally rewritten piece

Learn more about the Master Class.

Would you like to hold an in-house Catch Your Readers workshop? Contact Ann directly.

Register for Writing Workshop in Chicago.

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“When time is scarce, a subject line like ‘The world looks different through a Nikon’ is likely to win out over ‘Some exciting news!’ or ‘Re: C#13012205.’”
— Win Goodbody, senior product manager, Sitka Technology Group

Length matters

In B2B emails, longer subject lines work better

You’ve read it again and again: Subject lines of 50 characters or less outperform longer ones. Turns out that may be wrong, at least for business-to-business emails.

Or so says Adestra, a U.K.-based email service provider. It recently analyzed a random sample of more than 1 billion emails to learn what works — and what doesn’t — in subject lines.

Among the findings:

1. More is more.

According to the study, subject lines of:

  • 90 characters and more produced the highest response rates.
  • 30 characters or less also performed well.
  • 30 to 90 characters “is the dead zone, and will reduce the chances of opens and clicks in an email,” write Adestra’s Parry Malm and Mark Bonner, the report authors.

Why is longer better? You can communicate more benefits with more characters, Malm and Bonner write.

Longer subject lines perform better for B2B

Long and short subject lines

The long and the short of it Subject lines of 90 characters or more performed best for opens and clicks. Shorter subject lines also performed well. But beware of medium-sized subject lines for B2B. Chart by Adestra

So, Malm and Bonner suggest:

2. Less is more.

Super-short subject lines also perform well.

Subject lines of:

  • One or two words are most likely to gain opens and clicks.
  • More than 14 words come in second in terms of performance.
  • Two to 14 words reduce clicks and opens.

Super-short headlines perform best in B2B

Bottom line on subject lines

Bottom line on subject lines Make your B2B subject lines shorter or longer, but not medium sized. Chart by Adestra

So tell your story quickly or pile on the benefits. But again, stay out of the dreary middle when you write subject lines.


Source: Parry Malm and Mark Bonner, “And the best subject line ever is …,” Adestra, 2012

Next steps: Catch Your Readers Online

Want to get the word out on the Web?

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“Ann was fantastic — captivating presentation. Loved the opportunity to shine the light on our own writing to see what we need to work on, what worked well.”
— Brianna Beanland, account coordinator, Capstrat

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.

Ann's touring schedule image

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

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.

Want to polish your skills? Keep up with Ann’s latest two-day Master Classes.

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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:

  • Chicago: April 21-22
  • Cleveland: May 6
  • Minneapolis: April 27-28
  • New York: Sep. 24
  • Portland, Oregon: June 30
  • Raleigh, North Carolina: May 27
  • San Francisco: June 15 & July 29-30
  • Tacoma: Aug. 19
  • Washington, D.C.: Oct. 27-28

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

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

Want to polish your skills? Bring me in for a workshop at your organization.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying presenting an in-house workshop for Capstrat, judging PRSA’s 2015 Silver Anvil Awards and writing “Writing With Wylie” for PRSA Tactics.

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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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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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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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For more info …

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

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