And 6 more tips for writing during the pandemic
Here are 7 more tips on writing during the Covid-19 pandemic — or any crisis.
1. Make it emotional.
Sometimes we forget that the pandemic isn’t the only story out there. Oh, yeah — there’s an election coming up!
You can learn a lot about how to write messages for any campaign — from politics to products — from Drew Westen’s article, “How to Win an Election,” which appeared in the May issue of Psychology Today.
Westen worked with Democrats, which you’ll see reflected in his examples. But whichever side of the aisle or position you’re on, you can get great insights into how people respond to persuasive messages from his research.
Here are some highlights:
Don’t make them think. Make them feel. “I don’t remember Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Plan’ speech,” Westen writes. “But … we all remember his dream.”
Emotions move people. So focus on the dream, not on the detailed policy or program descriptions.
“We think because we feel,” Westen writes. “We think for a reason, and the reasons are always emotional in nature. Our feelings are our guide to action. Reason provides a map of where we want to go, but first we have to want to go there.”
“We think because we feel.”
Which emotions move people? Hope, satisfaction, pride and enthusiasm — and fear, anxiety, anger and disgust.
Want to persuade your audience? Reach readers’ hearts as well as their heads.
Turn people into people. The phrase the unemployed turns real people with pain-lined faces into nameless, faceless abstractions.
Plus, there’s the Just-World Hypothesis. That means we tend to rationalize away bad things that happen to good people: I wonder what they did to lose their jobs? Or Maybe they’re just lazy.
Instead of the unemployed, write about People who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own.
What do you do instead? Try: People who’ve lost their jobs. And to overcome the Just-World Hypothesis, try People who’ve lost their job through no fault of their own.
Here’s another term that abstracts real, live human beings: Medicaid recipients.
Instead of Medicaid recipients, make it Whether you’re white, black or brown, chances are, if you have a parent or grandparent in a nursing home, Medicaid is paying for their care.
Recipients are passive, so the term doesn’t bring to mind people actively trying to help themselves. That’s why people on Medicaid doesn’t resonate, either: It suggests that they are on the dole.
Instead, turn people into people: People who rely on Medicaid for their health care.
Or, go take it one step further: Chances are, if you have a parent or grandparent in a nursing home, Medicaid is paying for their care. That phrase earned a 20-point boost in favorability.
Want to take it up another notch? This phrase came in at 10 points stronger: Whether you’re white, black or brown, chances are, if you have a parent or grandparent in a nursing home, Medicaid is paying for their care.
DREAMers is another term that transforms real, live human beings into an abstract idea. Making matters worse, DREAM is an acronym “for a piece of legislation with a name no one knows,” Westen says.
Instead of DREAMers, write about Children who have never pledged allegiance to any flag other than ours.
Instead, write: Children who have never pledged allegiance to any flag other than ours.
Finally, Universal health care may call to mind socialized medicine. Affordable Care Act (ACA) doesn’t capture people’s values for health care. Neither do Medicaid for All or ObamaCare.
But the phrase I believe in a doctor for every family increased support against opposition 70% to 30%. In fact, Westen suggests the next health care bill be called A Family Doctor for Every Family.
Tell a story. “Issues are not narratives,” Westen writes. “Nor are 10-point plans. Narratives have protagonists and antagonists.” (Medicaid, for instance, is the hero in the statement, Chances are, if you have a parent or grandparent in a nursing home, Medicaid is paying for their care.)
Stories also have a structure. And they tend to have a moral.
Persuasive stories, Westen writes:
- Begin with a statement of values that (to establish a connection between speaker and listener
- Raise concerns in vivid ways that activate emotions, particularly moral emotions, such as fairness or indignation
- Briefly describe a solution, without a lot of details
- End with a sense of hope
Want to write emotional stories that move people to act? Learn how at our Master the Art of the Storyteller Master Class.
2. Watch your tone.
Here are some Covid-19 message leads that have — I’m just going to say it — really irritated me this month:
Dear Customer, As the No. 1 ranked rental car company for Customer Satisfaction by J.D. Power, we are committed to going the extra mile for you today – and – always.
OK. Clearly you’re very proud of your award, and you have every reason to be. But maybe you should hold the chest-pounding to the second or third paragraph, especially right now?
This is not the time to focus on how great you are. Focus instead of the reader, and how you’re solving the reader’s needs.
My heart goes out to every business that’s struggling right now. But Couchsurfing’s appeal for contributions put a nick in my empathy.
You know that little piece of nanocontent you have to click to get out of a popup box? Couchsurfing communicators quickly changed this message, thank goodness, but originally, it said something like (and I am definitely paraphrasing from memory here):
Yes! I want to help people and the planet. Here’s my gift.
No, I don’t care about people or the planet.
I like snarky. I am snarky. But snarky’s just not the tone for this message or these times.
You are one of 67,000 people in our company’s database.
— Phoenix Business Cycle
Uhm … is that supposed to make me feel important and special? This lead appeared under the subject line, “Ann, Audra would like to reconnect, and catch up. What about you?” (Me: “Who’s Audra? And, no.”)
And it appeared on top of a link saying, “Click here to see and hear from Audra the CEO and Founder direct and put a face to this email.” (Me: “Who’s Audra? And, no.”)
Want to write messages that grab reader attention and move people to act? Find out how at our Catch Your Readers Master Class.
3. Make writing easy.
When I’m feeling whiny about how hard writing is, I turn to my file of quotes by famous writers:
“For 40-odd years in this noble profession, I’ve harbored a guilt and my conscience is smitten. So here is my slightly embarrassed confession — I don’t like to write, but I love to have written.”
— Michael Kanin, screenwriter
“Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.”
— Olin Miller, aphorist
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and wait for drops of blood to form on your forehead.”
— Gene Fowler, American journalist
Writing is hard because we weren’t taught how to write. Instead, we were taught how to edit: how to spell, punctuate and use the right grammar.
But there is a how to writing. In fact, following a few simple steps in the right order can help you come up with fresher, more creative ideas. It can also help you write better, easier and faster.
How can you make writing easy? Learn to master a writing process that works with — not against — your brain at our How to Write Better, Easier & Faster Master Class.
4. Get the gobbledygook out.
Jargon. Buzzwords. Acronyms. They’re things that make your readers go, “huh?”
Even in the best of times, we need to translate from the language of our audience to the language of our readers.
To get the gobbledygook and gibberish out of your message:
- Redefine the way you define terms. Unfamiliar term, familiar term leads with the jargon. Instead, lead with the definition, then add the jargon at the end.
- Run the B2B test. Unsure whether a phrase is an industry term or an in-house term? Look it up on your industry’s biggest trade publication or association site.
- Use the terms in your readers’ heads, not the terms in your head. If readers are looking for heart attack, don’t use myocardial infarction.
And learn how to get the jargon out of your media relations pieces at our PR-writing workshop.
5. How do readers read on the web?
They don’t, says usability research Jakob Nielsen.
Instead, they scan, reading no more than 20% of the words on a page, according to Nielsen’s analysis of 50,000 page views by highly educated Europeans.
That means we need to make our messages more scannable.
To reach readers where their eyes are, put your key messages in:
- Bulleted lists
- Highlighted key words
Learn more techniques for reaching readers where their eyes are at our Reach Readers Online Master Class.
6. Check out these Covid-19 communication tools.
Here are more places to score Covid-19 communications resources:
- Covid-19 resources from IABC
- Crisis communications resources from PRSA
- Daily coronavirus updates from PR News
- How to Write During Covid-19. Watch this webinar from PRSA and me free with coupon code WYLIE420.
- How to write during Covid-19. Crisis communication guru Molly McPherson interviews me for her podcast.
- Upskill during your downtime with our online Master Classes.
Please hit reply and let me know your favorite Covid-19 resources.
7. Need a break?
Me, too. I am loving The New York Times’ Smarter Living columns on enduring the pandemic. Learn how to:
- Take a stretch break
- Help grieving kids
- Camp in your own backyard
- Make a coronavirus piñata
- Have a good cry
- Stay in touch with low-tech friends
- Clean your house
- Hold a Zoom birthday party
- Make my new favorite meal
While you’re at it, how can you reverse-engineer these columns to gain insights for writing your own service stories during the pandemic?
Oh, and dreaming of a massage? Check out this video.
What do you need from me during the pandemic? Please hit reply to email me your questions, examples and ideas, I’ll try to address them in the next issue.
See you next week!