“His speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.”
— William McAdoo, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Treasury

Readability smackdown

Master Class attendees boost reading ease by 226%, 230% — even 300%

One of my favorite parts of my Catch Your Reader Master Class is our Cut Through the Clutter contest.

Using Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics, attendees edit their copy, bringing their Flesch Kincaid grade level down and their Flesch reading ease up.

Readability smackdown image

Don’t dump a paper pyramid on your reader Multiply your message’s readability, in less than an hour. Just take a tip from some of these Catch Your Readers Master Class graduates.

Our Chicago Master Class winner increased reading ease by a remarkable 300%. Our runners-up didn’t do so badly either: Their scores soared by more than 225%.

What can you learn from these Master Class graduates’ successes to make your own messages easier to read and understand?

A 230% increase in readability

Jen Uschold is senior manager of internal communications for Direct Energy. In our Master Class, she transformed her original piece from a traditional news story to a feature and added some compelling display copy.

She also dramatically improved readability — by 38.6 points — from 16.8 points to 55.4. To do so, she:

Here are her before-and-after scores:

Jen Uschold  before statsJen Uschold after stats image
Dependent Eligibility Verification Starts May 15th

How you can help

Direct Energy offers comprehensive and competitive benefit programs to attract and retain top talent. To ensure that we continue to offer affordable and comprehensive benefits, DE must control healthcare expenses. To manage costs and ensure that only eligible dependents are covered on our benefit plans, all employees with dependents enrolled in coverage will be required to verify their eligibility.

The Dependent Eligibility Verification process is new to DE, but it is an industry standard practice. This company-wide process will only happen once. Going forward, this process will be asked of any employee enrolling a dependent on our benefits plan.

Overview of the Dependent Eligibility Verification Process

  • The Dependent Eligibility Verification Program will be conducted from May 4 — July 31, 2015.
  • To ensure the confidentiality of our employees’ information, Dependent Eligibility Verification will be conducted by Benefitsolver, DE’s third-party benefits administrator.
  • Beginning the week of April 27, DE and Benefitsolver will begin communicating this process to all employees with a dependent (spouse/domestic partner and/or children) enrolled in a Direct Energy medical, dental and/or vision health care plan requesting that they provide documentation to verify eligibility of their dependents. Communications will be sent via email and letters to the employees home.
  • Acceptable documentation may include state or federal tax returns (within the last two years) showing married filing jointly or married filing separately; marriage certificates; court orders, birth certificates; and divorce decrees.
  • If a dependent is found to be ineligible for coverage, the employee can remove the dependent from his/her plan during the Self-drop Period without any penalties.
  • If the employee does not provide the requested documentation by the deadline, the dependent will be dropped from the employee’s plan on July 31, 2015.
  • Dependents found to be ineligible will not be offered continuation of coverage through COBRA because discovery of ineligibility is not considered a COBRA qualifying event.
  • An appeals process will be available for employees with extenuating circumstances that prevent them from being able to provide the required documentation within the specified timeline.
  • Please direct all employee questions about this process, acceptable forms of documents and information about the appeals process directly to Benefitsolver at 1-800-588-9806 weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. CST. or by visiting benefitsolver.com.


  • Week of April 27: Communications of the program begin to HRBPs, impacted employees and all people managers
  • May 4 — May 15: Employees can request removal of ineligible dependents through Benefitsolver
  • Week of May 11: Letter sent to impacted employees with covered dependents notifying them of the Dependent Eligibility Verification process
  • May 18 — July 17: Required documentation to be provided to Benefitsolver
  • July 20 — July 31 appeals process for ineligible dependents or insufficient support
  • August 1: Termination of ineligible dependent coverage goes into effect.
Keep your family’s health covered.

You don’t want that $100 co-pay to become a $3,000 emergency room bill.

Imagine watching your 7-year old son attempt to jump the street curb on his bike. Instead, he slams into the curb and flies over the handlebars. You hear him screaming that he thinks he broke his arm as you get him into the car and head for the emergency room.

You don’t want to find out that he’s not covered on your medical plan while waiting for the x-rays because you didn’t confirm him as a qualified dependent.

Confirm your dependents between May 4 and July 17, 2015.

If you have dependents on your medical plan, you need to prove that they are qualified for coverage. You can do this by submitting specific documents to Benefitsolver between May 4 and July 17, 2015. Completing this request ensures that your family has medical coverage when they need it.

Confirming that your dependents are qualified to receive medical, dental and/or vision health care is new to DE, but it is an industry standard practice. If you carry a dependent that is not qualified for coverage, you can remove that person during this time-period.

How to verify your dependents?

  • Look for a letter from Benefitsolver to the home address you have on file with Benefitsolver
  • Read the letter to understand which documents are needed to prove eligibility
  • Submit the required documents to Benefitsolver between May 4 and July 17, 2015
  • Remove ineligible dependents from your plan

You only need to confirm your dependents one time while they are on your benefits plan. You will verify new dependents as you add them to your medical plan.

Don’t risk losing your family’s medical coverage. Submit the required documentation by July 17, 2015.

(Call out box:)

Which documents do you need to prove eligibility?

Copies of:

  • State or federal tax returns showing either married filing jointly or married filing separately
  • Marriage certificates
  • Court orders
  • Birth certificates
  • Divorce decrees

Have questions? Call Benefitsolver at 1-800-588-9806 weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. CT or visit benefitsolver.com.

A 226% increase in readability

You may have already seen Janelle Davis’ before and after. We called her out a few issues ago after the public relations strategist for the American Academy of Family Physicians did a remarkable job transforming a traditional inverted pyramid story into a feature.

Along the way, she also increased readability by more than 36 points, from 16.1 points to 52.5. To do so, she:

Here are her before-and-after scores:

Janelle Davis before stats imageJanelle Davis after stats
The American Academy of Family Physicians is calling on food producers and the medical community to fight antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

Antibiotics have saved the lives of countless people around the world, but their overuse and misuse has led to the emergence of drug resistant bacteria. The consequences are dire. Every year, antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people nationwide and kill at least 23,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The AAFP recognizes inappropriate use of antibiotics as a risk to both personal and public health and encourages only the appropriate use of these medications. Several groups, specifically those in the medical and food production communities, have the power to slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“As family physicians, we are deeply concerned about the threat that antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses to public health. This can’t be done alone. Everyone — particularly people in the medical and food production fields — can help combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” Robert Wergin, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said.

The AAFP calls for food production-related measures that:

Reduce antibiotic use in food production

Require a proof of efficacy and a positive cost/benefit analysis for any antibiotics used in food production. The analysis should take into account the ultimate costs to human health care, including not just economic costs, but morbidity and mortality costs as well.

The AAFP calls on the medical community to administer antibiotics only when needed. As part of the Choosing Wisely campaign, the AAFP has identified recommendations that aim to reduce unnecessary use of antibiotics. The Choosing Wisely campaign encourages specialty societies to identify commonly used tests or procedures that are possibly overused. The AAFP identified two procedures related to antibiotic use that physicians and patients should question. They include:

Don’t prescribe antibiotics for otitis media in children aged 2-12 years with non-severe symptoms where the observation option is reasonable.

Don’t routinely prescribe antibiotics for acute mild-to-moderate sinusitis unless symptoms last for seven or more days OR symptoms worsen after initial clinical improvement.

“Antibiotics do a tremendous good, but there’s a flip side of that coin. We have to recognize the risks of inappropriate antibiotic use, and commit to using these medications appropriately,” Wergin said.

Be a Warrior Against Drug-Resistant Superbugs!

Think Twice Before Requesting Antibiotics

You’ve been there. It’s the day before an important meeting, and you feel a sore throat coming on. You get home that evening and it’s worse. Your head throbs like a bad 80s baseline. Your eyes are fire engine red. You’d give just about anything to breathe through your nose. You call your doctor and beg for a pill — ANY pill — to make you feel better.

In many cases, that pill is an antibiotic. But unless your illness is caused by bacteria, an antibiotic won’t help — and it may even hurt. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million people in the United States are infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and more than 23,000 die as a result.

You as a patient can help slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by not requesting antibiotics for viral illnesses, such as cold and flu.

While it’s true antibiotics save countless lives, their overuse and misuse is rapidly becoming a public health crisis. Many drug-resistant strains of bacteria, or superbugs, can make you extremely sick. Think super gonorrhea, or the worst case of food poisoning you can imagine.

Some bacterial illnesses that were once easily cured by antibiotics have become harder to treat. From urinary tract infections to serious hospital-borne pathogens, many treatments have become less successful as bacteria learn to fight back.

“Family physicians are concerned about the threat that antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses to public health,” said Robert Wergin, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Doctors must educate their patients about appropriate antibiotic use, and patients need to understand that antibiotics are often not the best course of treatment.”

There are steps you can take to relieve cold and flu symptoms when antibiotics won’t work:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer to relieve cough, sore throat and sinus pain caused by cold and bronchitis.
  • Avoid smoking and other airborne pollutants.
  • Suck on ice chips, or use throat spray or lozenges to sooth a sore throat. Note: Never give lozenges to children.
  • Take ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen as directed to relieve pain or fever.
  • Place a warm moist cloth over the ear that hurts.
  • Take decongestants or saline nasal spray to relieve nasal symptoms.
  • Place a warm compress over the nose and forehead to help relieve sinus pressure.
  • Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower.

“Nobody likes to be sick, but sometimes the best course of action is to treat the symptoms and ride it out,” Wergin said. “Antibiotics do a tremendous good, but there’s a flip side of that coin. We must recognize the risks of inappropriate antibiotic use and use these medications appropriately, or we may find ourselves in a crisis where serious illnesses outsmart our means to treat them.”

A 300% increase in readability

As PR coordinator for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Kendea Smith has an essential job: Her organization is responsible for 70 percent of the country’s economy.

For this piece, she improved readability by 42.9 points, from 21.8 points to 64.7. To do so, she:

Here are her before-and-after scores:

Kendea Smith before statsKendea Smith after stats image
Your child could be the winner of $500, an all expense paid trip to a local nature observatory all while becoming a coastal awareness spokesperson.

All you’d have to do is sign your child up for the National Coastal Awareness’ iReport competition, which shines the spotlight on coastal issues.

The contest, which is a part of National Coastal Awareness Month, closes May 29, 2015.

The theme of the competition is “If not now, when?…If not us, who?”

The contest seeks to attract students from both the primary and secondary school levels, youth clubs/ groups in The Bahamas.

  • The competition is open to individuals between ages 8-17.
  • You may submit more than one entry.
  • Entries work should be the original work of the entrant.
  • The submitted work should draw the attention of a local issue, provoke conversation and lead the community toward a solution.

The second place winner wins $300 and an all expense paid trip to a local Eco-Adventure Camp. The third place wins $150 cash and an all expense paid trip to a local Eco-Adventure Camp.

For further information contact BREEF at 327-9000 and breef@breef.org.

Coastal Awareness iReport Competition

If The Bahamas’ sea height grows by more than six feet as experts expect by 2020, more than half of the country will be under water.

That’s why the National Coastal Awareness Committee is creating a way to get children involved through an iReport competition.

The contest is for students between ages 8-17 where they submit photos or videos by May 29, 2015 using the theme “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Rules of the contest:

  • You may send more than one photo or video.
  • It should be the original work of the candidate.
  • The work should bring notice to a problem, create chat and an answer.

First prize wins $500 and a trip to a local nature park.

The second place winner gets $300 and a paid trip to a local Eco-Adventure Camp.

Third place wins $150 and a trip to a local Eco-Adventure Camp.

For more information call BREEF at 327-9000 or email breef@breef.org.

Multiply the readability of your message.

Want to become a readability warrior yourself? Use Readability Statistics to make your messages measurably easier to read and understand.

Cut Through the Clutter

Is your copy easy to read? According to communication experts, that’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it.

Fortunately, academics have tested and quantified what makes copy easy to read. Unfortunately, that research virtually never makes it out of the ivory tower and into the hands of writers who could actually apply it.

But you’ll leave Catch Your Readers — a two-day creative writing master class on Oct. 27-28 in Arlington, Virginia — with “the numbers” you need to measurably improve your copy’s readability. Specifically, you’ll learn:

  • How long is too long: For your paragraphs? Your sentences? Your words?
  • Three ways to shorten your copy — and which is the most effective way
  • How to avoid causing your reader to skip your paragraphs
  • A tool you can use (you already have it, but you might not know it) to quantifiably improve your copy’s readability
  • A seven-step system for making your copy clearer and more concise

Learn more.

Register for Persuavsive writing workshop in Washington D.C.

Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

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

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“I write almost every day as part of my job. With the knowledge I gained during these two days I am going back to work a much more effective writer and communicator.”
— Christy Moch, change navigation implementation leader, Allstate

Catch Your Readers in Washington, D.C.

Learn to write copy that moves people to act in this 2-day, hands-on Master Class

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.

But in Catch Your Readers — a two-day writing Master Class on Oct. 27-28 in Arlington, Virginia — we’ll debunk destructive writing myths. (You’re not still married to the inverted pyramid, 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.

Washington D.C. persuasive writing workshop image

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 Washington, D.C., 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
  • Take Your Message From ‘Meh’ to Masterpiece: 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.

Register for Persuavsive writing workshop in Washington D.C.

Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

Meet me in D.C.

John F. Kennedy once called Washington, D.C., “a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency.”

If Kennedy was right, a lot’s changed since then. D.C. is one of my favorite destinations: Easy enough to navigate that even I can get around (Northern efficiency). And it offers deep wells of Southern charm.

Best of all, the city is packed with spectacular art, theater and music — much of it free. Which is great, because you’ll want to conserve your budget for dinner.

Abraham Lincoln Memorial - Washington D.C. image

Say hi to this guy Get the best #Selfie ever at the Lincoln Memorial after our fall writing workshop. Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Why not make a long weekend of it?

I, for one, will be winding down from our fall writing workshop by immersing myself in five centuries of news history at the Newseum; visiting one of just 10 da Vinci paintings in the world at the National Gallery; eating whatever José Andrés sets in front of me at Zaytinya; and catching “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Maybe we’ll run into each other!

Learn more.

Register for Persuavsive writing workshop in Washington D.C.

Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

Save up to $300 — register by Aug. 27

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 or PRSA.

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

At the workshop, you’ll find out why Jennifer Uschold, senior manager of internal communications at Direct Energy, said of Ann’s Master Class: “Fantastic! Within 90 minutes, I was applying the ideas Ann presented.”

Learn more.

Register for Persuavsive writing workshop in Washington D.C.

Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

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

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“One of the top two abilities lacking in entry-level PR pros: strong writing skills.”
— WorkInPR survey

Break the news

The New York Times improves on the fact pack

Writing a news story? You could do worse than study The New York Times for inspiration.

Break the news image

News? Or snooze? Take a tip from The New York Times and run “snappy synthesis” news leads instead of fact packs and announcements.

We analyzed 87 stories in the Dec. 15, 2014, edition of the Times. (We skipped the sports pages and one-paragraph stories.) Reporters started 44 of those pieces with news leads.

News leads put the bottom line up front so busy readers in a hurry can gulp the news in one paragraph rather than reading the whole story. On Dec. 15, the Times topped 51% of stories with news leads.

Snappy synthesis

“Snappy synthesis” is what I’m calling the Times’ approach of putting the story into one pithy, fascinating sentence.

The New York Times ran 12 snappy synthesis leads — 14% of all leads — on Dec. 15.
David M. Herszenhorn and Neil Irwin used snappy synthesis to start this story about Russia’s economic woes:

Interest Rate Raised to 17% in Russia

MOSCOW — Russia has a new enemy: the currency markets.

David Jolly and Mark Scott lead with snappy synthesis in this piece:

France Says It Will Ban Uber’s Low-Cost Service in New Year

PARIS — The problems facing Uber, the popular ride-booking service, are going from bad to worse.

And Brian X. Chen leads with snappy synthesis for this story:

Lawyers in iPod Trial Await Jury Decision

OAKLAND, Calif. — After 10 years, a class-action antitrust lawsuit involving iPods is finally in the hands of a jury.

Tip: If you have news — real news — to announce, use this approach. “Snappy synthesis” is much fresher and more interesting than other news lead options.

But is it really news?

On Dec. 15, The New York Times used news leads to cover jihadist networks, rebel sieges, fatal shootings, sexual assaults, home invasions, abortion laws, Supreme Court rulings, Senate confirmations, Medicaid expansions, immigration detention center openings, gun cases, international climate deals and hostage sieges.

In other words: news. Real news. Not product announcements, executive moves and milestones and urgent releases about your new headquarters building.

More than half of the Times stories cover real news. What percentage of your stories do? For most of my clients, that percentage is in the low single digits.

If it’s really news, use snappy synthesis. If it’s not, use a feature lead instead.

NOT Your Father’s News Release

PR professionals have been married to the traditional news release format since Ivy Lee created the release more than 100 years ago. Why, then, do we need a new approach?

With 2,500 releases crossing the wires each day — that’s one every 35 seconds — the impact of your traditional news release ain’t what it used to be. In fact, more than half of all traditional press releases never get covered, according to PR Newswire’s own research.

In NOT Your Father’s News Release — our two-day PR-writing workshop in New York on Dec. 9-10 — you’ll learn current best practices from the Public Relations Society of America’s “national writing coach.” You’ll find out how to go beyond PR 101 approaches to write PR pieces that get posted and published, boost your search engine rankings and reach stakeholders directly.

Specifically, you’ll learn to how to:

  • Think Like a Reporter. Place your PR piece among the 3% to 45% (Wilcox & Nolte) that actually get used: Develop story angles that media outlets actually want to run, instead of those that you just wish they’d run.
  • Avoid PR 101 approaches. You’re not still stuffing all of the W’s and the H into your lead, are you? You’re not writing “XYZ Company today announced that,” right? Learn current best practices — proven in the lab! — for organizing a contemporary, compelling PR piece.
  • Cut Through the Clutter for PR Smackdown. Make your PR piece up to 300% more readable. Find out how long is too long for PR headlines, leads, sentences, phrases and words. Then use a cool tool (you already have it on your computer) to measurably improve readability.
  • Turn lame-ass quotes into killer sound bites. Do your PR quotes still sound like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons: “Wah wah wah wah”? Learn techniques for making your subject matter experts sound as fascinating as Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan.

Learn more.

Register for New York PR Writing workshop - NOT Your Father's News Release

Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

Would you like to hold an in-house NOT Your Father’s News Release workshop? Contact Ann directly.

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“A list is just a scaffolding for a story. It’s just a way of organizing information. I mean, The Odyssey is 24 chapters. You could call that 24 Chapters About Odysseus. That’s, like, a really great list. Really top notch. Really, really viral. Super viral.”
— Jack Shepherd, BuzzFeed

I’ve got a little list

Eight thoughts about the length of your listicle

Thank you, David Letterman.

I've got a little list image

Is 10 tops? How many items should you include in your listicle?

The Top 10 list rules the Web — or at least, Buzzfeed. The number of Buzzfeed listicles with the numeral 10 in the headline outranked the next most popular numeral (15) by 142%, according to research by Noah Veltman and Brian Abelson, two Knight-Mozilla fellows. Fiddle around with their addictive “listogram” for details.

Listogram of buzzfeed listicle lengths image

Perfect 10 The number of Buzzfeed listicles with the numeral 10 in the headline outranked the next most popular numeral — 15 — by 142%. Image by Noah Veltman and Brian Abelson

But just because Buzzfeed writers like the number 10 doesn’t make that the best number for your listicle. So how many items should you include? Here are eight thoughts about that:

1. Consider including more items.

Abelson found a slight correlation between Buzzfeed list length and the number of tweets the list gets: The longer the list, the more tweets.

List length vs. Twitter shares image

More may be more The number of tweets rises along with the number of items on a listicle. Image by Brian Abelson

But don’t forget: Tweeting doesn’t mean reading.

“We’ve found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading,” writes Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, which measures traffic for sites like Upworthy.

2. But don’t include too many.

Hundreds of items might overwhelm potential readers. “6 steps to 6-pack abs”? Maybe. 66 steps? Forget it!

And no matter what the headline says, there really aren’t “99 Things You Need To Know About Franz Ferdinand Before The 100th Anniversary Of His Assassination.”

3. And don’t include too few.

When it comes to lists, remember what you learned at Three Dog Night camp: One is the loneliest number. Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.


Besides, posts with headlines promoting seven or more items outperformed those with six or fewer, according to an internal study of HubSpot’s blog. While HubSpot still posts pieces with six or fewer items, writes Pamela Vaughan, HubSpot’s lead blog strategist, the inbound marketing experts don’t promote that quantity in the headline.

4. Embrace your oddness.

Oddly, odd numbers on magazine coverlines sell better than even ones, according to Folio:. Bloggers have taken note.

“It’s long been a superstition in the business — for years — that an odd number will do better than an even number,” BuzzFeed’s Jack Shepherd told the folks at Neiman Lab.

So 7 Steps may be more effective than 10 Tips.

5. Or maybe 10 is the magic number?

Lists with 10 items received the most social shares, according to research by BuzzSumo. The provider of content marketing analytics itself analyzed the number of shares of more than 100 million articles.

Top 10 lists had four times the number of social shares — 10,621 on average — than the second most popular list number: 23.

Runners up: 16 and 24.

6. Steer clear of 20.

“Yeah, I think probably people shy away from 20,” Shepherd told Nieman Labs. “Twenty feels real weird.”

7. But do use a number.

Numbers sell, because they indicate quantity and value in the information.

“Honestly,” Shepherd said, “I’ve often made posts where the post didn’t need a number, and then I’ll throw a number into the headline — just because people like that more.”

We know, Mr. Shepherd. We know.

8. Or don’t.

The best length for your list: the number of items your research turns up.

Next steps: Get Clicked, Read, Shared and Liked

Want to get the word out with social media?

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“How lovely are the wiles of words.”
— Emily Dickinson, prolific American poet

Your brain on wordplay

We pay attention to and remember puns, alliteration

A hand shoots up in my Make Your Copy More Creative workshop.

Your brain on wordplay - Broca area image

Center of attention The Broca area is the part of your brain responsible for processing language — or not. Image by Henry Vandyke Carter via Wikimedia Commons

“But,” the communicator says, “don’t you risk confusing people with wordplay?”

Well … yes, you do. And that’s part of the point.

When readers encounter wordplay, they first try on the literal meaning of the words. When that doesn’t work, they seek alternative meanings.

Because readers spend extra time and attention on wordplay (PDF), they understand it more fully and remember it longer.

And that’s just one benefit of wordplay. Among others:

1. Wordplay grabs attention.

Meet your Broca area — a small part of your brain located in the frontal lobe of your left cerebral hemisphere. It’s your body’s language control center.

Attention deficit image

Attention deficit Your Broca area is like Ginger: blah-blahing its way through most information, processing only the messages that stand out. Wordplay is one tool that lights up the Broca. Image by Gary Larson, Far Side

You can thank your Broca for helping you sort through the 5,000 messages you get every day — that’s nearly 2 million a year — PLUS social media, without having to process every word.

Remember that old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson?

What we say to dogs: “Okay, Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!

What dogs hear: “Blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah.”

Your Broca is Ginger: not paying much attention to most messages — until something interesting comes along.

Well-worn phrases like “leveraging our mission-critical synergies” are so familiar and dull that they don’t activate your Broca. Plain old splainin’ doesn’t do anything for it either. Why even bother decoding those words into meaning?

But puns and other wordplay activate Broca’s area.

Want folks to pay attention to your message (PDF)? Activate their Brocas with wordplay.

2. Wordplay is more fun.

Figuring out a pun is a little like figuring out a riddle. We solve riddles for fun. It also feels good to figure out a twist of phrase.

Call it “the pleasure of the text,” the reward that readers get from figuring out figurative language. When readers discover the hidden meaning behind your wordplay, they congratulate themselves on their astuteness.

3. Wordplay feels good.

And when that twist of phrase tickles your readers’ funny bones, their brains deliver a dose of dopamine. Then, if you really crack up, neurons called spindle cells spread the joy across the brain.

4. Wordplay changes minds.

The good feeling readers get from figuring out puns and other plays on words also helps create a positive attitude toward your message. That puts readers in an agreeable mood and may even open their minds to your message.

In fact, ads using rhetorical techniques were 166% more likely to persuade readers (PDF) than ads that did not, according to two researchers from the California State University at Sacramento. They conducted a content analysis of ads in Which Ad Pulled Best and correlated those with figurative language against results.

Move readers to act

Rhetorical ads are more persuasive image

One to remember Readers are twice as likely to remember and act on ads with rhetorical figures than those without, according to Gail Tom and Anmarie Eves, two researchers from California State University at Sacramento.

5. Wordplay is more memorable.

“Words that roll off the tongue stay in the brain,” says Sam Horn, author of Pop!: Stand Out in Any Crowd.


Those two Sac State researchers also found that ads using rhetorical techniques were 229% more likely to be remembered than ads that did not.

And, in another study, four researchers had half their participants read alliterative passages and other half read plain-old passages. Those who read the alliterative passages remembered more of what they’d read than the control group.

Play to win.

Want readers to pay attention to, enjoy, remember and act on your messages? Try wordplay.


Sources: “Awesome Alliteration Analysis Posits Power Of Poetry And Prose,” Scientific Blogging, July 30, 2008

Cristen Conger, “Is there a scientific formula for funny?” How Stuff Works, June 7, 2011

Francisco Javier Díaz-Pérez, “The use of wordplay in advertisements published in men’s magazines: a comparative study in the UK and Spain” (PDF), Estudios Ingleses de la Universidad Complutense, 2012, vol. 20, pp. 11-36

David Glen Mick and Edward F. McQuarrie, “Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language” (PDF), Journal Of Consumer Research, · March 1996

Stefan Kjerkegaard, “Seven Days Without a Pun Makes One Weak: Two Functions of Wordplay in Literature and Literary Theory,” Journal of Literature, Language and Linguistics, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2011

Gail Tom and Anmarie Eves, “The Use of Rhetorical Devices in Advertising,” Journal of Advertising Research, July-August 1999

Leo Widrich, “The Science of Storytelling,” Daily Good, Feb 21, 2013

Next steps: Play With Your Words

Want to spice up your headlines, leads and soundbites with wordplay?

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“Excellent, practical information that can be put to use on my work today.”
— Paige Donnelly, communications manager, Novozymes

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:

  • Ann Arbor, Michigan: Sept. 29
  • Atlanta: Nov. 9 & April 20-21, 2016
  • Austin, Texas: Sept. 1-2
  • Chicago: May 11-12
  • Falls Church, Virginia: Dec. 2
  • Houston: Nov. 2-3
  • New Jersey: Sept. 21
  • New York: Sept. 24, Dec. 9-10, & Sept. 28-29, 2016
  • Oakland, California: Aug. 3
  • Phoenix, Arizona: Feb. 23-24
  • Portland: July 27-28, 2016
  • Raleigh, North Carolina: Oct. 6-7 & Nov. 3-4
  • San Antonio: Jan. 14, 2016
  • San Diego: June 28-29, 2016
  • Seattle, Washington: Aug. 18-19
  • Vacaville, California: Sept. 17
  • 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:

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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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… 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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