Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

Effective Communication Cuts Through Noise

In Effective Communication, Marketing Communications, Marketing Message on June 29, 2011 at 10:04 am

Several years ago, I was volunteering in my son’s kindergarten class. The room was filled with the noisy energy of more than 20 five-year-olds. When the teacher wanted the children’s attention, she spoke quietly yet firmly, so quietly in fact, that the parent volunteers in the back of the room could barely hear her. The teacher never raised her voice yet in less than a minute, the room was quiet and she began reading a book to the children. Parents marveled, joking that they had to yell to be heard at home. The teacher responded, “I speak softly so the children have to listen.”

In this age of sensory and information overload, how can you “speak softly” to compel your prospects and customers to listen to you? Here are three key concepts to guide your marketing communications efforts.

  1. Deliver an important message. Every time you communicate with prospects and customers, deliver a message that is important to them. Focus on what they need, not what you need. Talk about benefits not features to ensure that all of your marketing messages are customer-centered.
  2. Deliver a succinct message. It’s human nature to tune out someone who drones on and on without making a point. Don’t fall into this trap and lose the attention of your audience. Have a succinct marketing message that clearly explains the customer pain points your product or service addresses, your solution and what makes your solution better than that offered by your competition. Your marketing message is the verbal representation of your brand. Use it consistently and often, just as you do your company logo.
  3. Deliver your message with confidence. You don’t need to barrage your customers and prospects with messages to get through to them. This sends the signal that you really don’t know what makes your product or service important so you are hoping that volume will make up for that information gap. Make the effort to determine who your audience is, the best way to reach them and what they need to hear to purchase your product or service.

How It All Began

It’s or Its, Who’s (Or Is It Whose) to Say?

In Effective Communication, Writing on June 27, 2011 at 10:57 am

There has been a wonderful quote by British playwright Shelagh Delaney making the rounds on the Internet and Twitter recently. “Nothing passes. Everything stays with you. Everything makes it’s (sic) mark.”

But horrors! This wonderful quote also includes a glaring misuse of the maligned possessive and apostrophe. I rather doubt Shelagh Delaney used the word, “it’s,” in the original quote. “It’s” means “it is,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense in the quote.

Generally, an apostrophe indicates that a word is possessive — it shows ownership. However, it also can indicate that a letter is missing, as in a contraction. The confusion with “its” and “whose” stems from the fact that the apostrophe indicates that a letter has been left out, not that the word indicates possession.

Here’s an easy way to determine which form of these words to use. If you can replace “it’s” with “it is,” use the apostrophe. If you can replace “who’s” with “who is,” use the apostrophe. Otherwise, use the possessive version, its and whose.

How It All Began

Does Writing Matter?

In Branding, Marketing Communications, Writing on June 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Does your ability to write well make a difference in your career? In this age of tweets and texts, does grammar matter?  Or, is writing a dying art?

As a writer by profession, I strongly believe that writing is important to your professional brand. In fact, your ability to write well can make or break your personal brand. Why? Writing is more than just putting words on paper. Writing is a thought process. (See earlier post for more on the writing process.) If you are a sloppy writer, it’s a good indication that you do not pay attention to details and that you aren’t a clear thinker. Not great for a professional brand.

Have you ever received an email that left you wondering, “What does this mean?” “What does the sender want me to do?” Generally, there are two options. You either guess at the meaning and perhaps act on the wrong assumption or you send an email asking for clarification. Your email can lead to a string of emails further clarifying the first message. Either approach leads to wasted time.

When I receive an email that is difficult to read and filled with typos and grammatical errors, I read between the lines and take away these messages: You aren’t important enough for me to take the time to write this clearly. This topic isn’t important to me. I don’t have the ability to think this through. I am careless. I don’t care. Those aren’t messages most people want to send, especially in a professional situation.

So, how does good writing fit in with social media? What about the 140-character tweet or cryptic text message? Many people do treat social media casually and fail to realize the importance to their professional brand. If you are using social media in a business situation, however, you are being judged by your words. In fact, people may only know you based on your posts, comments and profiles. Bottom line, if an idea is worth sharing, take the time to write your thoughts well.

What is your pet peeve when it comes to writing? Feel free to post a comment. Thanks!

How It All Began

Tame Grant-Writing Summertime Blues

In Effective Communication, Grant Writing, Writing on June 22, 2011 at 2:00 am

It’s summer and thoughts of lounging at the beach or hiking in the mountains are floating through your head. The reality is you are stuck in your office writing a grant proposal. Not your idea of a fun summer? Here are some of my favorite ways to speed up the grant-writing process to get you out of the office sooner while still getting optimum results.

  • Find your comfort zone. I can’t stand clutter. It bothers me so much that I find it difficult to work in a messy office. I need a neatly organized space to think straight and write well. On the other hand, years ago when I worked in a news bureau, my mentor had no problem working in an office where files teetered precariously and the floor was filled with papers, books, files and notes. Andy was a fantastic writer, even in this atmosphere. Moral of the story — find your comfort zone, especially when working under a tight deadline, even if it means taking an hour to clean the clutter off your desk.
  • Start with your story. The starting point of your proposal should be your story — your agency mission, the need you serve, the clients you assist, the program you have developed. Understand your story before you answer the proposal questions. This approach helps you provide a cohesive response that will help the funder understand the value of your program and the urgency of your request.
  • Dissect the Request for Proposal (RFP). The bottom line is the funder controls the funding that you want. You need to provide all of the information requested, in the required format. The easiest way to do this is to understand what the funder is requesting. Read the RFP as many times as it takes to understand it completely. For longer proposals, create a summary of the funding request and an outline of the questions asked.
  • Write by topic. The quickest and most effective way to write is to follow the six steps of the writing process. (Click here for more information on the writing process.) Writing is a thought process. To keep your train of thought and to write more quickly, attack one topic at a time and complete that topic in one sitting.
  • Turn off all distractions. Writing is a thought process. When you become distracted by email, texts, phone calls and conversations with colleagues, your thought process is broken. Your writing slows down or grinds to a halt. When you write, get rid of all distractions.
  • Give yourself time to mull it over. When I have a major writing project, I like to prep late in the day in anticipation of writing the next day. If your goal is to complete three sections of a grant in one day, brainstorm, research and outline those sections the day before. This gives you the time to mull over your writing and you will find the process goes much more smoothly when you actually begin writing.
  • Take a break. Everyone gets hit with writer’s block sooner or later. When you are under a deadline, however, you can’t afford to waste a lot of time. If you hit a dead end, take a break. A quick walk or other diversion will go a long way to getting your writing back on track.

How do you streamline the grant-writing process? Leave a post to share your ideas.

How to Find Not-So-Obvious Writing Errors

In Effective Communication, Marketing Communications, Writing on June 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

American journalist, author and grammarian William Safire once said, “If you re-read your work, you can find on re-reading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by re-reading and editing.” Mr. Safire’s tongue-in-cheek comment makes the need for editing obvious. The problem for many writers, however, is finding the not-so-obvious errors. Here are some common writing issues and tips to help you overcome them.

Problem: You proofread your work but still overlook errors.

Solution: It is difficult to proofread your own work and find all of your spelling and grammatical errors. It’s even harder to catch lapses in the logical flow of ideas because you understand what you are trying to say. Before you edit your work, put it aside if only for a few minutes. It is easier to catch mistakes with a fresh eye. For important documents, ask a colleague to read your work.

Problem: You don’t remember the rules of grammar that you learned years ago so you don’t always know when you are writing something grammatically incorrect.

Solution: Many writers cannot cite rules of grammar but intuitively know if something is grammatically incorrect. How? They are avid readers. You can increase your grammar skills by reading well-written newspapers such as The New York Times or The Washington Post. Get in the habit of reading books. When in doubt about punctuation or word usage, consult a style book or dictionary.

Problem: You use the “spell check” function when writing but spelling errors still creep into your work.

Solution: Spell check is a helpful tool but should be only one of the ways you check your writing for errors. The spell check function can overlook subtle mistakes. For example, if you use the wrong word but spell that word correctly, the spell check feature may not bring that word to your attention.

Problem: You have difficulty spelling words correctly.

Solution: Improving your spelling skills does not have to be a tedious process. Playing Scrabble and doing crossword puzzles can help. Reading is another solution. Get in the habit of using a dictionary.

Problem: Even after proofreading an email, you inevitably find a spelling or grammatical error after you push the “send” button.

Solution: If an email is an important piece of correspondence, proofread it on paper rather than on your computer. If that one extra step saves a string of emails explaining what you meant to say in the first place, it is time well spent.

Book Review: Unless It Moves the Human Heart

In Marketing Communications, Writing on June 15, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Chances are, you are not packing up (or downloading) a bunch of books on writing to take on vacation this summer. You may not even put such books on your “must read” list. But if you are serious about improving your writing skills, Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing, by Roger Rosenblatt, is worthy of a place on your bookshelf.

Unless It Moves the Human Heart details one semester of the author’s Writing Everything class at Stony Brook University. While Rosenblatt shares many thoughts on how to write well, the heart of this book is his case for the necessity of writing, which he refers to as “…the cure for the disease of living.” This is not a dry book about grammar. Instead, it is a reminder of why we all should write well.

Here are just a few of the author’s thoughts on writing that are worth sharing:

  • Eliminate throat-clearing. Rosenblatt uses the wonderful phrase, “throat-clearing,” to describe when writers have difficulty beginning a piece and thus add extraneous words and thoughts. He suggests plunging in without hesitation. How? Understand what your piece is about. My suggestion is to form one clear sentence summarizing what you want to say before you start writing.
  • Write every day. I often hear the question, “What’s the best way to improve my writing?” The answer is simple — write. Rosenblatt goes so far as to say, “You ought to write every day if you can, even if it’s a single sentence.”
  • Find the starting point. Whether you are writing an email, a report or a novel, you must decide the best place to start. For example, you may choose to write in chronological order, by topic or by offering up your solution first. Rosenblatt suggests that you choose “…the place where you think the story will unfold most completely and with the greatest impact.”
  • Make every word count. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using the same words over and over again when we write but the richness of the English language allows us to be very precise in our choice of words. Rosenblatt explains, “Every word is an idea. It triggers images in your reader’s mind.”
  • Write as if your reader needs you. This is a wonderful reminder of the power of words, even in this age of tweets and texts. Whatever your reason for writing, write as if your readers need to hear your message. Rosenblatt concludes, “You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does.”

Think Before You Write

In Effective Communication, Marketing Communications, Writing on June 14, 2011 at 2:39 pm

When you face an important writing task, do you find yourself putting it off until the last minute because you don’t know how to tackle it? Or do you begin immediately only to delete more words than you save? Both approaches can be time consuming and frustrating.

To be more effective and efficient, think of writing as a thought process that requires a great deal of work before you can successfully put words on paper. Refrain from the temptation to rush the process and begin writing before you are ready. Instead, gather facts, connect ideas and understand the message you want to convey to your readers before you begin to write.

The writing process can be used successfully whether you are crafting a brief letter or a lengthy report. Follow these steps to successful writing:

  1. Understand your assignment. Think about your goal, audience and format. Consider what you want your written piece to achieve, such as voicing an opinion, persuading your readers to take action or sharing information. Understand your audience, including their level of interest and understanding of your topic. Finally, consider the format of your writing, such as a brief email message, a major report or a 140-character tweet.
  2. Brainstorm. Once you understand your assignment, think about the type of information that should be included. Ask yourself the traditional questions posed by journalists — who, what, when, where, why and how. At this point, you may have more questions than answers. Jot down these thoughts in no particular order. Be creative.
  3. Research. You now must search for information to answer the questions raised during your brainstorming session. You may need to use a variety of sources ranging from personal interviews to books and reliable websites. As you research, look for connections and discrepancies.
  4. Organize your thoughts. Organize your research then arrange the information into a logical flow of ideas. Develop some form of written outline, although it does not need to be formal. Include enough detail to guide your writing. Take a break to give yourself time to mull over your ideas and your approach. Review your outline one more time to be certain that your ideas flow logically and will be understood by your readers. At this point, about 75 percent of your work should be completed.
  5. Write. You are ready to write when you can form one sentence that summarizes the point of your writing. Complete your first draft in one sitting. If that isn’t possible, complete sections at a time so you do not break your train of thought. Use your outline and refer to your research as necessary. When you finish your first draft, put your writing aside.
  6. Edit, edit, edit. All good writers edit mercilessly. Edit for meaning, mechanics and style. Read your piece through once before making any changes, focusing on the flow of ideas. Do your thoughts unfold logically? Will your readers understand what you are trying to say? Are there inaccuracies or vague thoughts? Once you are satisfied that your message is clear, move on to the mechanics — spelling and grammar. Avoid jargon and acronyms that will confuse your reader. Finally, edit for style.  Be clear. Be succinct. Delete any unnecessary words. Use a natural tone.

When you are confident that your piece is complete, set it aside. After taking a break, read it again, make any necessary changes and you are finished!

Strong Marketing Message or Trap?

In Branding, Marketing Communications, Marketing Message on June 9, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Is your business trapped by your marketing message? Is it so general that it forces you to be everything to everyone? Does it dictate your pricing strategy? Does it condemn your business to being no better than your competition? If so, it’s time to develop a strong marketing message that can drive your brand and grow your business.

Your marketing message is your “logo in words.” It should be a succinct, memorable statement that addresses your customer pain points, suggests a solution and explains why your solution is better than that of your competition.  It should be the heart of all of your marketing efforts and integrated into all of your marketing tools. Your marketing message is a critical component of your brand because it helps customers and prospects understand what you can do for them and why they should care about your company.

Here are five common traps to avoid as you craft your message:

  1. We are like everyone else. Many companies define themselves by what they do — the product they make or the service they offer — without attempting to make their message customer-centered. This type of message is often a label, such as, “I’m a home builder,” or “I’m a plumber” or “I sell shoes.” This type of message does nothing to distinguish your company from your competitors or to help prospects or customers understand how you can address their needs.
  2. We have the lowest price. Unless your business strategy really is to be known as the company with the lowest price, this approach is counter-productive. While initially you may get business by promising the lowest price, customers will continue to expect this. You will not be able to grow your business based on the value your bring to your customers.
  3. We do everything. This is probably the easiest trap to fall into because businesses often fear they will lose customers if they fail to promise to do everything. It sounds reasonable that the more you promise to do, the more customers you will have. However, if you are trying to differentiate your business and grow it profitably, it is better to have a niche or specialty. This does not preclude your company from providing additional services and it does build your reputation as an expert in a particular area.
  4. We offer the highest quality. Most companies claim that they offer a quality product or service. Customers expect this. Making this claim, however, does not help prospects understand why they should do business with your company or what makes your company different from your competition.
  5. We offer the best service. This is similar to promising the highest quality product or service. Instead of making a blanket statement, explain your unique approach to customer service.

Make Marketing Message Your Logo in Words

In Branding, Marketing Communications, Marketing Message on June 6, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Every company needs a marketing message. This strong, succinct statement of approximately 25 words or less captures the customer need you address, your solution and what makes your solution different. It must be memorable and appropriate to share face-to-face and in your marketing tools. Your marketing message is important because it is a summation of what your company represents. It builds your brand. It is your “logo in words.” Your marketing message should be an integral part of your marketing efforts and known and used by everyone involved with your business.

Here are a dozen ways to incorporate your message into your marketing:

  1. Networking. When you meet a prospect, use your marketing message to introduce your company. If your message sounds awkward in speech, restructure it so you can state it with ease.
  2. Website. Your marketing message should be incorporated into every page of your website, even the contact page. Don’t fall into the trap of including your message only on the home page. A visitor may never get to your home page and therefore will leave your site without a clear understanding of your company.
  3. Newsletter. While your newsletter should not be a sales pitch, it is appropriate to include your marketing message to reinforce your company brand.
  4. Social media. If you want social media to be an effective marketing tool, incorporate your marketing message into your profile.
  5. Voice mail. Record a voice mail message that includes your marketing message. When you leave a message for a prospect, incorporate your marketing message as well.
  6. Business card. Include your marketing message on your business card. This is a great way to build your brand.
  7. Email signature. When your marketing message is included, it elevates your email signature from contact information to marketing.
  8. Speaker introduction. By integrating your marketing message into your speaker biography, you provide your audience with a memorable introduction to your company.
  9. Presentations. Use your marketing message during presentations to prospects, clients and other groups to help people understand how your company addresses their needs.
  10. Client meetings. Have clients ever told you that they were unaware that your company offered a particular service or product? Help them understand the depth and breadth of your company through a strong, memorable marketing message.
  11. Prospect letters. When you include your marketing message in a prospect letter, you answer the pressing questions, “What’s in it for me?”
  12. Print pieces. Think of your marketing message as your “logo in words” and include it in all print pieces along with your logo.