Friday, March 3

Writing Across Communication: An Introduction To Writing

Anyone who has ever been introduced as a writer already knows the most common question that follows. In the thirty some years I've been introduced as one, it has never changed. It's timeless.

"So, you're a writer," they say, in admiration and sometimes skepticism. "What do you write?"

"Words," I would tell them. "And on good days, sentences."

I'd immediately follow up with a litany of audience-tailored examples that could be easily understood before settling on the umbrella concept as a commercial writer (copywriter isn't readily understood by people outside advertising and marketing) and occasional journalist. Later, I turned in the nouns for stylistic adjectives that ranged from strategic and interactive to gripping and zippy. I still do at times. 

Nowadays, I'm more likely to tell people that how we define writing really depends on whom we ask. Whereas Walter Lippman might define it as an opportunity to tell the truth and shame the devil, Stephen King is more likely to say that it's "the truth inside the lie." They're both right for their craft.

Bigger than that, writing is the process by which we translate our desired perception of objective and conceptual realities into a form that others may see, adopt, and act upon. It's one of the ways we exploit our extraordinary cooperative capacity as humans — agreeing or disagreeing that certain ideas, thoughts, and concepts have greater value than the objective, physical world in which we live — even if we don't personally know the person or group of people who put the words together. 

Regardless of what "kind of writer" someone is, the fundamental core of it remains unchanged, which is why I invested some time to design a class that could provide students with an understanding of how writing could be applied across communication — disciplines such a journalism, public relations, content marketing, advertising, and multimodal integration — with tremendous impact.

Writing Across Communication: An Introduction To Writing

This deck serves as an introduction to the class as well as some of the fundamental skills that can be learned by different writing disciplines. It also introduces writers to the changes taking place within the occupation as writers are being asked to specialize and generalize at the same time. So instead of learning how to write from within the silo of one discipline, they can learn from all disciplines: 

• Editors understand organization, structure, and universal ideas. 
• Journalists know how to find and define news and source information. 
• Public relations practitioners serve both organizational and public interest. 
• Crisis communicators possess empathy while managing a crisis and bad news. 
• Content marketers are experts in developing content that has customer value. 
• Copywriters are masters at developing creative stories that speak to people. 
• Writers of the future understand non-linear content, multimodal interaction, and UX design. 

The skill sets for modern writers don't end with journalism and commercial writing. Beyond the four primary approaches to effective communication (journalism, public relations, content marketing, and advertising), writing literature can help someone become more adept at storytelling, learning poetry more masterful at alliteration, and understanding psychology more attuned with the impact we impart on audiences. 

From script to screen and everything in between, getting it all right can be profoundly rewarding. The words and, on good days, sentences written for ourselves or our organizations have the potential to reshape how people see the world in small, almost unnoticeable ways and in grand life-altering ways that have shaped the course of world events. Nothing else is so important. 

What do you think? Where are the writers of tomorrow headed in terms of skill sets and craft? Are they really destined to be replaced in part by automation? And as an aspiring or working writer, would you want to take a class like the one being taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas?

Friday, January 13

Writing Occupations Are Changing. Are You Changing With Them?

As much as 75 percent of marketers may be increasing content creation, but the average job growth rate for occupational writers isn't keeping pace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job growth for writers averaged 2 percent, with exception to some specialized fields such as technical writers.

As more and more content is produced, organizations are relying on other occupations to produce material for their communication channels, including blogs and social media, while occupational writers are simultaneously being asked to specialize while overseeing generalized content being produced by their non-occupational peers. Specifically, it's not uncommon for a writer (or communication manager) to be assigned specific projects but also serve as an editor for the organization.

Likewise, other companies are growing content while charging occupational writers with other titles, such as coordinator or manager, and then making them responsible for a broad range of advertising, marketing, and public relations tasks. Interestingly enough, however, the integrated communication specialist track hasn't taken hold as an occupation path even if it has been adopted in practice.

Writers are being asked to review content well beyond their scope. 

Nowadays, it's not uncommon for marketing managers to write news releases or for public information officers to be tasked with writing advertisements. Both tracks ought to expect a heavy load of proofreading, editing, and rewriting too as more employees, managers, and executives write content.

There isn't anything wrong with the shift in work loads, aside from obvious time famine, but it does require professionals self-assess their abilities and continually strengthen their skill sets in areas where they are less familiar. Ergo, most copywriters are not familiar with news release writing and Associated Press Style guidelines, and most journalists or public relations specialists aren't always prepared to relax their desire to write with a certain literalness. (Some even struggle with relaxed blog content.)

The outcome can be found everywhere, as advertisements become boring and marketing puff pieces attempt to masquerade as news. As they do, ironically, outcomes begin to wane with the only solution offered up by some is to double down on the investment. There is only one problem with that. More lackluster communication doesn't produce results with luster. It exposes dullness to more people.

Stop trying to wear different hats and start writing from the inside out. 

One of my biggest issues with clients and so-called brainstormers who want steal everyone else's work is that it never produces anything that elevates the conversation. It's writing from the outside in, and only contributes to the communication overload suffered by more and more consumers today.

They don't need more content. They need the right content, written in a way that meets organizational goals and best suits the medium.

This is also why I transformed Writing For Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas into Writing Across Communication. It's a better way to expose writers to different styles, formats, and techniques that used to be associated with specific fields. You see, I believe we have to start  teaching occupational writers how to write differently given we live in a world where copywriters are asked to write blog posts or white papers, public relations specialists are asked to write advertisements and 140-character tweets, and journalists are asked to be adept with social media and broadcast — all the while proofreading and editing everyone else's contributions too.

So rather than teach writers to form professional perspectives, they really need to understand the core communication components of an organization and various processes used in creating effective communication. After fundamentals, they can learn four primary approaches to effective communication: journalism, public relations, content marketing, and advertising.

While many writers likely find they are more suited to one approach over another, diversification also strengthens specialization. Even fiction writers can benefit from learning different writing approaches. Many fiction writers begin as journalists or copywriters before transitioning to the arts.

Friday, January 6

Hey Writer ... Why Do Think Your Words Are So Special Anyway?

As mind boggling as it seems, we will be exposed to more than a million words today. No, we won't see all of them, but they are there — framing webpages, breaking up social media updates, decorating walls, accompanying us to work on the horizon, and tucking us in when we go to bed.

Even those who didn't pick up a book this year — their lives are overflowing with words. In fact, this overwhelming volume of messages might even explain why the number of book readers has dipped in recent years. With as much content as people consume, voluntarily and involuntarily, it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom why anyone might want to add a few thousand more.

If you write, it ought to make you think too. What makes your words so special?

It doesn't even matter what kind of writer you might be. Literary writers have the seemingly impossible task of targeting voluntary readers to add more words to their lives, which is precisely why most authors never break more than $10,000 per published novel. Content marketers and copywriters have a seemingly impossible task too.

They target otherwise involuntary readers, using interruption, distraction, and attraction as tools of the trade. But even if they are very good at it, even great at it, most of them know that the number of times a reader has to be exposed to a message before it sticks has increased from three times in the 1960s to somewhere around 300 times today.

Even if it does stick, awareness is fragile. One typpppo, intentional or not, and even the best written message suddenly evaporates as our minds are attracted more to mistakes than best intentions.

Sure, some people argue that typos have become okay. They really aren't so okay when you realize they tend to attract more attention than the message.

Sure, we can all appreciate that the quantity of communication (how much we write) and the speed of communication (how fast we are asked to write it) has certainly contributed to the diminishing rate of quality — so much so that forgiveness is given much more readily than it once was. But does that make it right?

It depends, I suppose, on our expectation of outcome. Do we want people to remember our message or our mistake? If you want them to remember your message, then the error acceptance rate is zero.

If you want people to take the time to read your work, then take more time to write it.

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There are several takeaways from the class, including a better measure of how much time — from research to layout revisions — writing projects require (even if very few have such luxury).

It also includes some fundamentals on proofreading (the final polish) the work, start to finish:

1. Read the content out loud, slowly, with special attention paid to alliteration
2. Break up the content with a ruler, allowing you to see a line instead of a page
3. Start from the bottom up and backwards, seeing each word to check spelling
4. Print the content and, if you cannot print it, then change the font size and style
5. Set the work aside for a few hours or a day between writing, editing and proofreading

If you noticed that each of these techniques is tied to tricking your brain to see the content differently, you are right. The phenomenon that makes other people's writing errors stand out is the same phenomenon that makes ours so hard to spot. It's likely related to the Troxler effect, an optical illusion where unchanging stimulus away from a fixation point will fade and disappear.

Becoming a better proofreader of our own work often means changing the stimulus so our brain doesn't fill in details that don't exist after we've fixated on the work. Conversely, readers tend to spot errors much more quickly because the error disrupts the unchanging flow of content and our brains are programmed to see disruption. Never mind that our perception of authorship is the only change.

This isn't the only area where perception affects our writing. The value we place on it is based largely on perception too, unless we invest the time it takes to elevate the reader instead of merely informing them. Why bother? An article of 750 words is .00075 percent of the words someone will see today.

Wednesday, August 3

Educators See PR Trends From A Different Perspective


When the Public Relations Certification Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) began experiencing a decline in enrollment several years ago, most people pointed to the economy as an explanation. I didn't see it that way. The decline in enrollment was the symptom of an ailing industry.

As the old business model for journalism in the digital age began to fail, so did public relations. Sure, some people might call me out with claims that public relations firms are booming. Maybe some firms are, but most aren't relying on public relations as much as content marketing anymore.

Forbes recently called it the devolution of public relations. And while Christopher Penn pointed out that public relations is not doomed, even he couched his assessment in the observation that the media landscape is more diverse than ever before and public relations is adapting to the media landscape. I think he is right, except that it seems public relations firms aren't adapting to the market as much as they are adopting more marketing.

You can see it in enrollment. In prioritizing their educational investment, students and working professionals are more inclined to take classes that seem better suited to integrated marketing communication (which includes content marketing) than public relations. In fact, it was for that reason I asked the university to develop an Integrated Marketing Communication Certificate instead, and include public relations under a new umbrella. UNLV met me halfway with two certificate programs.

Pubic Relations and Integrated Marketing Communication Certificate programs.

Although the complementing certificate programs are still in their infancy and without the marketing support that I hoped for, the concept has merit. The idea is to offer two programs with up to five concentrated core courses while the balance of the curriculum consists of transferrable elective courses.

These are the four classes that I have signed on to teach this fall. Although the descriptions for two of the courses were inherited, three of the four classes are being built from the ground up. The fourth, Editing & Proofreading Your Work, is my long-running class offered three times a year and always refreshed between offerings. Course descriptions follow:

Fundamentals of Public Relations - 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Thursdays, starting Sept. 8

Explore the history, principles, procedures, and ethics guiding those who work in the field of public relations. You will also learn concepts, definitions, and techniques related to enhancing an organizational presence, elevating an organizational identity, and reinforcing an organizational brand by serving both the organization and public interest. The class is held Thursdays from Sept. 8 to Oct. 27 (with no class on Sept. 22 and Oct. 20). Course: 163PR6101

Editing & Proofreading Your Work - 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Sept. 10

Make a positive impression with clear, concise, and grammatically-correct personal or business correspondence. This half-day program will focus on essentials such as content, flow, mechanics, spelling and punctuation. You will leave the workshop with several editing exercises you may use to self-test and practice the skills you have learned. This class is an intensive 3-hour refresher for all writers, literary and commercial. Course: 163WR1150

Content Marketing - 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Thursdays, starting Sept. 26

Gain the insights, knowledge and skills you need to design, develop, promote, and manage digital, mobile, and social content as part of a successful marketing campaign. In this skills-driven class, you will learn some of the newest trends in the creation of compelling and engaging content that not only supports marketing but solidifies customer loyalty in marking them (and the media) as an important part of the campaign. The class is held Mondays from Sept. 26 to Dec. 3 (with no class on Oct. 17, Oct. 31, or Nov. 7). Course: 163MK2120

Crisis Communication - 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Thursdays, starting Nov. 11

Weather a natural disaster, accident, product recall, or other organizational crisis with a skillfully executed crisis communication plan. The class will take you through the process of developing a plan while minimizing legal liability, executing the media response, and managing key messages. The final project is to participate in an on-camera interview about your assigned crisis. The class is held Thursdays from Nov. 10 to Dec. 8 (with no class Nov. 24). Course: 163PR6103

Will the new curriculum work? I don't know. While public relations remains a critical component of any integrated marketing communication background and an important skill set, its overemphasis on media relations (for decades) has diminished its attractiveness as a standalone program. So, we'll see.

All of these classes also follow a traditional classroom model so you must be in Las Vegas to attend. In the future, there may be room to develop similar classes as an online alternative or, perhaps, private one-on-one instruction. Considering the direction of education today, it seems inevitable.

Monday, July 11

Never Mind The Cliche If Its Omission Is A Crime

Every now and again someone complies a list of words that need to be kicked to the curb because the list builder claims such words are overused, overblown, and otherwise tired. Sometimes they're right.

And other times? They aren't so right, at least not so right for everyone. Some people truly deserve the words that others dismiss as overused or in need of being avoided. Maybe you deserve some too. 

The real crime seldom has to do with a word being cliche, but rather the author or orator using a phrase or opinion that betrays a lack of original thought — power word and omit lists, inclusive. 

"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean." — Robert Louis Stevenson

The problem faced by many authors or orators isn't the word they choose but the way they go about choosing it. Instead of investing time to find the right word, they rely on tips and tricks that follow the pendulum swings between popularity and platitude. So rather than ever finding the right words to describe themselves, all they ever do is describe the trends that surround them. 

What they ought to think about instead is writing straight, honest prose that lends clarity to their meaning. A serial entrepreneur is something who has incubated a string of successful startups. A strategist is someone who envisions something new or at least reframes it in an unconventional way. Some of them might even be called innovative or collaborative, depending on their approach. 

The same can be said for any of the nineteen words called out for being hyperbolic. If they apply to you, continue to stand your ground and use them. But if you only grabbed onto to them because they looked good as part of someone else's message, then heed the warning and take the lesson to heart.

Skip manipulations, cognitive distortions, and pretend qualities that you or your company might profess and focus in on those qualities you really do have. That's all anybody really wants nowadays. They want the truth (or as close as you can come to it) with neither exaggeration nor omission.

Sunday, December 20

Once Upon A Red Rocket: A Short Story For The Holidays

Once Upon A Red Rocket
by Richard Becker

Lizzy Capland outflanked the outstretched hands of the man in the Santa suit and sat down on the bench beside him. She had turned 11 last June, far too old to sit on someone’s lap.

 “Too old to sit on my lap but not too old to see me,” mused Santa from behind the big white curls of his beard. “Well, hello there.”

“Yes sir, I’m too old. I mean, no sir,” said Lizzy. “I’m not here to really see you. I mean…”

Santa drew up an eyebrow, waiting patiently for her explanation.

“Well, I’m here to see you, obviously,” said Lizzy nervously, trying to find the words. “But I’m here to see you for my brother. He’s eight.”

 “Oh, I see,” said Santa Claus. “And what is his name?”

“Johnny,” she said. “Only he likes to be called John now. It makes him feel older.”

“Yes,” Santa said as if remembering something before offering her a wink. “He’s still Johnny to me too.”

“Then you probably know why he couldn’t make it here himself,” she said, breathing out the words in anxious desperation. “He’s terribly, terribly sick. He has leukemia.”

“It’s all right, child,” he said, putting a bear of an arm around her. “It’s all right.”

“Well, no sir. It’s not all right,” she fought back the tears. “But that is why I came to see you. I want to ask you for a Christmas miracle.”

“Oh, my dear, dear girl,” his voice dropping from merry tenor to a whispering baritone. “As much as I wish I could move heaven and earth to heal all children, it is beyond my powers.”

“I know Mr. Claus,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m not asking for you to heal him.”

“Then what can I do for you?”

“There is only one present on Johnny’s Christmas list this year,” she said.

“Tell me what it is and I’ll do my best.”

“He wants a rocket ship.” “A rocket ship?” said Santa. “I can certainly do that. What kind would he like? A red one that takes his imagination to outer space or a blue one that can blast off because it’s water propelled or maybe something with a remote control?”

“No sir, you don’t understand,” she squirmed. “Johnny doesn’t want a toy rocket ship. He wants a real one.”

“A real one?”

“Yes, sir. We both know you can’t cure him,” said Lizzy. “But maybe you could build him a rocket ship so he can travel to someplace where he wouldn’t have to be sick anymore.”

“Lizzy,” Santa sighed.

“Please, Mr. Claus? You just have to do something for him.”

“You dear, sweet girl,” he said, shoulders slumped. “This isn’t something I can promise …”

“I know,” she said, defeated. “It’s okay. I knew you weren't the real Santa Claus anyway. What would the real Santa be doing in a mall a few weeks before Christmas?”

“What I was going to say, Lizzy, is that it isn’t something I can promise,” he continued. “But if you believe and I mean really, really believe with all your heart … maybe your wish will come true.”

“You really mean that?”

“It’s Christmas, Lizzy. We are celebrating the anniversary of the miracle of miracles.”

“Oh, thank you, Santa!” Lizzy exclaimed, turning to hug him. “I’ll believe. You’ll see. I’ll believe.”

“I have faith in both you and your brother,” said Santa. “In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the biggest rocket ship you’ve ever seen wasn’t waiting for you and your brother on Christmas Day!”

“Christmas Day? Oh no, that won’t do,” Lizzy said, pulling back. “That won’t do at all.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t know if my brother will make it to Christmas Day,” said Lizzy. “We need it much sooner than that.”

“I see,” Santa sighed again, cupping his chin in thought. “This really is a puzzle.”

“I know,” she said. “It isn’t something you can promise.”

“It doesn’t matter what I can or can’t promise, Lizzy,” said Santa, laying a finger to her heart. “All miracles start from the inside out. Don’t give up on your dreams.”

Lizzy didn’t say a word as she first stood up. The once short line to see Santa Claus had swelled from to two children to nearly twenty, ranging from toddlers being held by enthusiastic mothers and fathers to six-year-old kids with shopping lists spooling out of one hand while using the other to tug at their tired-eyed parents who had become far too practiced in the annual ritual to be engaged.

The length of this line, along with the growing impatience of those waiting, seemed to break Lizzy from her spell. Time was no longer standing still. The rest of the world was waiting.

“You’re not such a bad guy for a mall Santa,” she said. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Lizzy” he said. “Don’t forget. Miracles happen from the inside out.”

She didn’t say anything else nor did she look back over her shoulder as the merry tenor of Santa’s voice returned. He was asking the next kid in line a litany of questions with the same sing-song familiarity of seasons past. For weeks, she had prayed for her brother to be able to visit Santa and hear them too, but those prayers had gone unanswered.

“Did you tell Santa everything you wanted?” asked her mother. “Yes,” said Lizzy, avoiding eye contact.

“So what was at the top of your list?”

“Oh, you know,” said Lizzy. “I really want a gift card to Justice.”

 ***
This is the first of a four-part short for the holidays. If you would like to read the balance of "Once Upon A Red Rocket," you're invited to find it here on my fiction Facebook page. It's where I publish most "first look" fiction material from time to time. Good night, good luck, and Happy Holidays! 

 

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