Wednesday, January 29

Writing Is A Process That Starts Long Before The First Word.

Three minutes. That is the average amount of time a student will invest in research before they start writing a paper. Professionals aren't much better. Many follow the familiar guidelines that they learned in school, writing short essays, journal entries, or field notes.

It almost makes sense, but only because 60 percent of all student assignments consist of short essays, journal entries, or field notes. Unless they take specialized classes like copywriting, journalism or creative writing, they aren't exposed to the variety of communication mediums at their disposal.

That is, they aren't exposed to them until they need them — anything and everything from technical manuals and blog content to speeches and mixed media presentations. And more than that, they need to invest significantly more time into research, especially if they think they know the subject.

How much more time? While different sources will provide different guidelines, I usually provide students with the guideline of up to 40 percent of the total estimated project time of two hours per written page. It sounds like a ton of time, but it's really not when you stop and think about it.

Epictetus said it best: First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak. That requires considerable more thought than simply searching for sources of affirmation. Epictetus, by the way, was a Greek sage and Stoic philosopher whose work still influences people today.

Writing is a process that requires more than one discipline. 

When students and professionals treat writing as a process, it helps curb the notion that corners can be cut or that it is ever complete until the authors agree that a final proof will be the final proof. At least that is the way it ought to be. In a world where 98 percent of all employers now rank written and verbal communication skills as highly desirable attributes in employees (higher than a positive attitude or being a team player), everyone ought to take more care about the craft at hand.

The deck helps break out the nut and bolts of writing into six different disciplines: research, form, writing, editing, proofreading, and presentation. It was created for a private session presentation designed to help bring professionals up to speed on the importance and execution of good writing.


If I were asked to boil the presentation down into a single line, I might say that great writing requires great thinking because thinking is behind each discipline. You have to ask the right questions.

1. Research. What do you need to know, who do you need to ask, and where should you invest your research time?

2. Form. What organizational structure will best present the material and how will the chosen medium limit or expand your options?

3. Writing. How will the content connect to the people we want to reach and what is required to have a maximum impact with minimal means?

4. Editing. What is missing from the first draft in terms of organization, evidence, and ensuring that the people who read our message might understand us?

5. Proofreading. Did we make sure to include all the elements of modern writing to ensure that we've clearly communicated something?

6. Presentation. And last but not least, does the content we've crafted look appealing to the eye, making it easier to digest and remember?

When you consider everything that may go into communication, there isn't any end to what you might consider to make it more powerful or impactful. And sometimes it might even remind you that despite the acceleration of communication — the speed of delivery and quantity that is produced — one single piece of quality writing can be the most potent and influential thing on the planet.

In about two weeks, Writing For Public Relations will begin at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This 10-week course covers much of what is included in the private session presentation deck above, except we will look at it all through the lens of a public relations practitioner, applying it to anything and everything from the news release to the crisis communication plan. But even if you cannot attend, I hope you will find the deck above will make you think first before writing.

Wednesday, January 22

Why Is Marketing Still Wrong About Social Sharing?

Talk to most people in social media, content marketing, or public relations and almost all of them agree that sharing is what makes social media tick. How often something is shared speaks to the relevance of the topic, quality of the content, and influence of the person creating or curating it.

For evidence, look no further than search engines and social networks themselves. They have made this measurement mission critical. Search engines look at shareability, authorship, and freshness. Social networks validate influencer rank and reach to quantify importance. Some news outlets now pay journalists bonuses if they bring in more impressions per article than their colleagues.

Even Facebook recently announced that trending will become an all-important means of measurement. Brands will get more exposure if their content is featured as a top story. To do it, all they have to do is create or curate popular content that gets more shares, clicks, and comments.

Why?

By placing an overemphasis on sharing as a measurement, search and social platforms create competition among content creators and curators that can only be won by investing in more time, better connections, more content, paid content, and potentially popular content. At the same time, search engines and social networks thrive because this draws attention and people to the platform, which makes it more valuable to content creators and curators. If you sense a vicious cycle, it is.

And yet, people who participate on social networks use a completely different set of criteria than marketers and content creators. There is a different psychology to sharing among consumers.

Five primary drivers behind the psychology of sharing.

The majority of shares can be attributed to five primary motivations. People share content to be valuable or entertaining to others (self-esteem), define themselves as human beings (identity), grow and nurture relationships (reciprocity), to get the word out about content and brands (persuasiveness), and to complete there own sense of self-fulfillment (affirmation). Let's take a closer look.

1. Self-Esteem. There are dozens of studies that link volunteerism and self-esteem primarily because helping others makes people happy. One special report put out by Harvard Health Publications even revealed that the more people volunteer, the happier they become.

While some advocates might argue that social sharing and volunteering are vastly different (and they are right in terms of tangible outcomes), our brains disagree. Knowing that an article we share helped someone or the joke we tell gives someone else a laugh produces the same positive mental impact as donating hard time and dollars (sometimes more).

2. Identity. Marketers aren't the only ones who want to establish their identity online or online identity. It's human nature to project oneself into written and visual communication (hopefully with authenticity). And most social platforms are designed with tools and categories to help people do it.

To do it, we tend to highlight aspects of who we are by sharing likes and interests (and commenting on the likes and interests of others) that reinforce whatever identity we want to project. Interestingly enough, this was especially important among early adopters in social media because it gave them an opportunity to establish their identity based on their passion and ideas over experience and expertise.

3. Reciprocity. The concept of reciprocity goes hand in hand with the connectivity social platforms provide. Just as people develop friendships based on proximity (location) and intellectually/emotionally (shared interests), they create similar connections online and then share content to reaffirm their connections.

As long as the desire to demonstrate reciprocity doesn't conflict with an established identity, sharing not only demonstrates an interest in what we share, but also supports the ideas, beliefs, and interests of  friends, groups, or networks. It demonstrates that we belong based upon similar reactions to the same content. And sometimes, people share just to support to the content creator or curator.

4. Persuasiveness. Although most people self-select their connections online, it is still very unlikely (and perhaps impossible) that all friends and associates will unconditionally agree with and support every idea, interest, and position. And yet, people are all hardwired to find more similarities.

When it doesn't occur naturally, people turn to persuasion. Even when we don't recognize it, people have a tendency to share things not because it helps others but because they know it will help others — content from self-selected sources (or other connections who already agree). Ergo, persuasion not only demonstrates our affinity to something, but also solicits others within our network to agree.

5. Affirmation. One of the most interesting aspects about social networks is the degree to which different networks satisfy ego needs through self-affirmation. In other words, people are not only content with trying to help others, establishing identity, making connections, and occasionally persuading people to their way of thinking, but they also need affirmation that whatever they did, said, or shared was worthy.

This is why almost all social networks provide self-affirmation actions supplied as likes, favorites, comments, shares, retweets, and other indicators that marketers covet. But unlike marketers, people aren't necessarily counting conversions. They're content in knowing someone will affirm their share.

How does this reconcile with with your organization's marketing efforts?

When marketers, content creators, and social media professionals develop a content strategy, they often obsess over organizational messages and some sort of conversion metric. But when you compare their strategies to the psychology of sharing, they come up short. Why?

If you want people to share content, you need to develop content that allows them to help or entertain others, reinforce their identity, or provide a persuasive argument (assuming they agree with you) to reinforce what they already believe or reaffirm their belongingness to a group that believes it. And then? Be prepared to provide reciprocal support and affirmation in return.

If this doesn't sound like a sound strategy for your organization, you are probably right. The model that social networks have devised for marketers to compete in is different than the model consumers participate in on a daily basis. You see, consumers aren't just looking for content that is worth sharing. They share content that contributes to their self-worth. How does that change your strategy?

Wednesday, January 15

Your Writing Is Almost Never As Good As You Think.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), slightly more than one quarter of all students, grades 8 and 12, are proficient writers. The majority achieve a basic level.

Basic almost sounds acceptable until you read the definition. It is considered partial mastery and allows for spelling, grammar, usage, capitalization, and punctuation errors even if these mistakes impede the meaning of the work. Consider it poor writing, passible if the reader makes an effort.

The NAEP also asked students if writing was one of their favorite subjects. About half of the students agreed, likely believing they are proficient writers. As many university professors can attest, the average student is more confident in their ability to write than their assignments indicate. It's a false confidence that many will take with them into adulthood.

Many people think they are good writers, and some people really are good. But most aren't good writers as much as they are "better" writers. Better than what? Better than those who write poorly. How can you tell if you are a good writer? Start by asking yourself some honest questions.

Ten questions that will help you assess your writing for improvement.

1. Do you use a thesaurus to find to avoid word duplication? If you do, stop it. The only reason to use a thesaurus is to find a more accurate word. All too often, writers who lean too heavily on their thesaurus create new problems with improper substitutions. A synonym is similar and not the same.

2. Do you pay attention to where words land in relation to others? Good. Misplaced modifiers cause more writing errors than almost any other style and usage error. (e.g., While driving down the street, a tree began to fall toward the car.) Read every sentence as if it stands alone to improve it.

3. Do you understand the difference between affect and effect? Affect and effect are two of several dozen words that people misuse and confuse. There are dozens of others: who and whom, immigrant and emigrant, jibe and jive, adverse and averse, etc. If you don't know the difference, know when to look them up.

4. Do you punch up words to make your writing more exciting? I hope not. While some marketers like to drop in words like "stunning," "exciting," or "best ever," unsubstantiated superlatives are equally likely to drive customers away. Worse, too much hype can ensure a negative experience.

5. Do you know the difference between active and passive writing? Even good writers sometimes confuse passive writing with writing in the past tense. The difference between active writing and passive writing is whether the subject is doing something or an object is having something done to it.

6. Do you look for words that will make your writing sound smarter? I hope not. Smart writing doesn't require fancy words. It requires accuracy and economy of language. So you don't have to write "he stated" when you mean "he said." Said and says is fine almost 95 percent of the time.

7. Have you double checked your work for redundancies? The reason writing tight becomes the mantra of great writers is because they know that time is valuable. No one wants to waste it by having to circle around, briefly summarize, or repeat it again. Not even for $5 million dollars.

8. Do you assume that every writer develops their own style? They do to a degree, but that ought not be your first thought about style. Style simply means putting your content in an acceptable form. This post, for instance, is a conversational style that pays homage to the AP Style Guide. But there are many more forms than this one.

9. Are you such a great writer that you can bang out an article? While there are a few people in the profession who can do it, great writers wouldn't dream of it. They recognize that writing is a process, requiring at least three steps: writing, editing, and proofreading. All three are different.

10. Does your content lay around like a rug? The great show vs. tell debate deserves its own post. Suffice to say that writers who like tell vs. show have confused showing with being unnecessarily descriptive. It's not the same. Showing is about substantiation, accuracy and vividness. It's about knowing whether to write "angry man" or "he fumed," "luxurious sheets" or "Egyptian cotton."

How did those questions turn out for you?

If some of those questions stumped you or if you would like to brush up on your writing, I teach a half-day Editing & Proofreading Your Work session at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas every now and again. The next class is scheduled for Friday, January 24. It would be great to see you there if you can make it. It is especially good for students planning to take Writing For Public Relations in February.

If you can't make it, there are other options. I develop customized sessions, programs, and curriculum for select organizations upon request (schedule pending). Or, if you're an aspiring writer or independent professional, drop me a note and suggest a topic. I'll be happy to explore the subject in two directions.

Wednesday, January 8

Whatever Your Vision, It's Probably Right.

If there is one common thread being spun in the first few weeks of 2014, we can sum it up to stories about vision. Everybody wants it. Few people have it. Nobody really knows what it means.

Let's start there. Inc. ties it to jotting down 3-, 5-, and 10-year goals. Harvard Business Review says it is all about a core ideology and a "big, hairy, audacious" goal. Fast Company calls it a future state. It's a fair summation from those articles at least. All three magazines have published dozens of ideas.

I don't really see visions like that anymore. I've come to see it as an achievable state of being without a definitive conclusion, not just for organizations and nations but also for individuals. It's conceptual and complete, non-comparative and never confined by time (even if we need time to move toward it).

Do you know who was great visionary? Gene Roddenberry. 

He didn't settle on an individual, organization, or nation. He peered into the future to find an ideal outcome for humankind. He envisioned a future for his fiction that centered squarely on hope, achievement, and understanding so humankind could reach for, explore, and master the stars.

The vision was so comprehensive that it has an "optimism effect" on its viewers. It's a phenomenon that isn't confined to fiction either. It's the same kind of optimism that keeps the hope for a Maslow Window alive. It's also why I'm supportive of any space program, public or private. The nation that sparks the next international space race and wins will likely dictate the ideology of our future.

Regardless, the point is made. People feel good when they think about Star Trek, doubly so when they start counting up how many of those innovations came true — everything from cell phones to tractor beams. Some of these technologies might not be mainstream, but iPhone isn't even a decade old.

The optimism effect can radiate from people too, vision pending. 

This is the reason successful people are successful. They always seem to find a way and other people gravitate toward them. Even if something doesn't work out, they quickly find something else to engage in.

It comes from their ability to objectively assess where they are and then move toward a better state of being in every aspect of their life, not just a goal or a singular objective. They consider the entire life — career, finance, health, family/friends, romance/intimacy, personal growth/education/spiritual, fun/recreation, and physical environment/home/community.

Don't get me wrong. I don't subscribe to the notion that all of these need to be balanced all the time. They don't. As long as someone makes progress in each area of their life, other areas can receive more attention. It isn't until someone starts to make long-term concessions or sacrifices (or short-term cheats) that things will start to break down and even whatever dominated their life is compromised.

The same holds true for organizations. They have to consider their mission, values, and culture just as much as market share, revenue, or stock price. All too often, organizations forget themselves and set singular objectives ahead of their vision like increasing a profit margin or cutting a budget.

But what happens over the long run? Much like marketers have found deep discounts can increase conversion rates but cheapen a brand, companies can lose everything by chasing one thing. Case in point, frozen foods have suffered from a sales slump that they hope marketing can fix.

The truth is that once premium frozen food brands like Marie Callender's frozen dinners aren't as good as they used to be. ConAgra thinks it's a perception issue, but it's a quality control issue. The meals they made ten years ago are not the meals they make today. The meals they make today aren't even as good as the ones they made last year. The sales decline matches recipe cutbacks, not consumer moods.

Think of a few companies that have been shuttered. Borders shrugged off an earlier vision to embrace merchandising and so chose a mission to change people (outside of its control) instead of seeing its place within that environment (inside its control). Circuit City adopted a vision that saw its team working together but never really outlined what they were working toward. Blockbuster had a mission and vision that defended its value proposition even when it no longer had value.

Barnes & Noble has an odd mission/vision too. One wonders how long it can compete without recognizing the critical need to better integrate the physical-online-mobile landscape (among other things). I can see a vision for them, but wonder if it will see it before it is missed as a company.

Whatever your vision, it's probably right. 

If you really want to develop a successful vision for the new year, start with assessing where you are and then dream up some ideal outcomes. Develop your vision from there by shifting away from the outcomes and more toward the qualities that epitomize them because it's the verb that gets you there and not the noun.

Once you have it down, it all becomes a matter of making personal progress. Organizations and nations aren't much different either. As long as the people who make it up can agree or believe in the vision enough to take action toward it, it will be infinitely more likely to realize than if it never had one.
 

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