Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category
In another installment of “Let’s Help Others To Take Seriously What We Write,” I’d like to offer a link to Solveig Haugland’s “OpenOffice.org Training, Tips, and Ideas” blog:
The key thing about many of these items, and useful grammar and punctuation in general, is they’re not just fancy-schmancy rules. They are important rules that affect the meaning of what you say. I think most people would agree is an important component of communication–controlling the meaning of what you’re writing.
Some of them don’t affect meaning, but do make it easier and more pleasant for your readers. That means they’re more likely to read your email, spec, or marketing blurb, and thus get the information you’re trying to convey.
Here are the high points. She goes on to explain them (and beautifully, I might add) in the body of the article.
- Use the word that is correct (the correct word, which helps your readers understand you, is always a good choice)
- Wherever possible without sounding dorky, put only in front of the thing it applies to.
- Keep your intransitive verbs off my body
- Lay off using lie incorrectly
- Dangling participles are as bad as you’ve heard.
- Few and less and more (but is less more?)
- Remember the comma.
- Cut down on the parenthetical phrases
- Forget you ever encountered ellipsis….unless you’re quoting a movie review…and leaving out the…bad parts…
- Hyphenation is important.
(For what it’s worth, I disagree with her about the serial comma. I think it’s important to use it. There are times when it matters a great deal for sake of clarity, and in those times when it doesn’t matter, it does no harm. Good habits are good habits.)
Go read — and learn well! — the rest: Top Ten Useful Grammar and Punctuation Points I Learned as a Techwriter and in Life in General (and Three to Ignore)
In the same vein as my previous post on the use of commas, I once again offer you a way to make your writing appear more intelligent: How To Use An Apostrophe, from The Oatmeal (courtesy this post from LifeHacker). It’s a nice, simple, visual guide.
Personally, I think it’s still too complicated. According to Michael D. C. Drout, professor of Linguistics at Wheaton College and author of several of my favorite Modern Scholar Series lectures from Recorded Books, the apostrophe’s job is to indicate that one or more letters are missing. When you understand that English used to have a dative case which was marked with the suffix “-es”, and that languages tend to “lose” the last unstressed vowel in a word over time, you understand why we tag possessives with “‘s” now.
For your amusement, check out Apostrophe Abuse.
I once filled out an anonymous survey at work. My manager knew which one was mine. I asked him how he knew. He said it was the only one where everything was spelled and punctuated correctly.
That isn’t a slam on my co-workers, each of whom is a very intelligent person who communicates wonderfully in everyday informal speech. It’s just that my writing is better because I care more about it. My attitude is: if we want to be understood, we have to communicate clearly, even in writing; if we want to be taken seriously, we have to communicate clearly, even in writing; and if we want to think clearly, we have to communicate clearly, even in writing.
Even on Internet, where nobody knows you’re a dog, the way you present yourself and your language matters. It may matter even more online than in real life, because the way you use language is pretty much all you’ve got.
Consider this, too, while we’re at it: we’re NLPers. Neuro-Linguistic Programmers. As I’ve heard John Lavalle say, Linguistics is our middle name. If we’re going to call ourselves NLPers, we should pay attention to the L.
Today at Dumb Little Man, one of my favorite blogs, they posted an article on how to use the comma. There’s a great place to start. Here’s the list:
- To glue two sentences together
- To give additional information
- Writing a series of three or more words or phrases
- Non restrictive phrases
- Demanding a pause
- Setting off direct quotations
- After conjunctive adverbs
- Set off a direct address
- Parenthetical phrases
For a fuller explanation and some good examples, go read The DumbLittleMan Guide to Comma Use.
Incidentally, here’s another good, albeit short, article from Dumb Little Man: Impress Your Clients, Boss and Colleagues: How To Improve Your Business Writing
As I come across more goodies like this, I intend to post them. If you’ve got a favorite article on the use of, say, semicolons, apostrophes, or quote marks, drop me a note in the comments.
If people aren’t taking you seriously, maybe it’s because of the way you’re communicating with them. Liz Strauss over at Successful Blog writes about the disconnect between a recent client’s goals and some of their marketing materials:
What do you do when you have big goals and you realize that your customer base sees you as a small-time operation? It’s time to realign your value proposition and how you offer your services to them.
(I love the way she creates headlines. )
I know this isn’t a marketing blog. I don’t want it to be one. Seth Godin’s blog is more than sufficient for me if I want to read brilliant marketing stuff. But I realize there are people who use NLP in their marketing, and I experienced something today that I think they’ll find interesting.
I got a card in the mail yesterday. From the envelope, it looked like a greeting card or an invitation. As there were a couple of recent events for which a card would have made sense, I was curious. The return address was in Florida, nine hundred miles away from me. I have friends in Florida, so I actually looked forward to what I’d find when I opened it.
It was an ad from the Dodge dealer where I bought my vehicle a few years back. Bummer.
It started with “Unnamed Auto Dealer cordially invites you and your family to our Open House Reception.” Opening the card, I found it continued with, “Unnamed Auto Dealer’s Open House Reception is our way of thanking you for your patronage over the past several years.”
That was interesting, I thought. Have a little party for your former customers, get them to think good thoughts about you, and when they want to buy a new car they’ll want to come back.
They immediately went into a sales pitch. “This exclusive event offers you, our valued customer, special pricing on over 300 brand new vehicles. In addition…”
Then they got all breathless about a “free gift” and a chance to win a $1000 shopping spree, “just for stopping by!”
No little get-together. They were trying to con me into coming in and looking at their inventory, intending to get me to trade before I want to.
The “exclusive event” ran for three days, from 9 in the morning until 9 at night. I’m supposed to believe that they’re shutting down the dealership for three twelve-hour days and that nobody will be allowed in without the little “invitation”? Or that if I didn’t have the little card they sent me, I couldn’t buy a new car at the same “special price” I could get with the card?
And don’t get me started on the fine print on the back.
So here’s how to persuade me to not cross you off my list of approved businesses:
- Don’t lie to me. If it’s an ad, don’t call it an “invitation” and make it look like there’s a party going on.
- Don’t lie to me. If it’s a reception, don’t try to sell me something. If you want to try to sell me something, don’t claim it’s a “reception”. Unnamed Auto Dealer could have created a lot of customer good will with a few hundred dollars’ worth of hors douvres and three or four hours after closing time on Saturday night, but they blew it.
- Don’t lie to me. If the card is from someone fifteen minutes from my house, the return address shouldn’t be for a place sixteen hours from my house. Could it have cost extra to have the dealership’s address printed on the envelope flap? If so, it would have been worth it.
- Don’t lie to me. If it’s an exclusive event, it should exclude someone. If everybody can get in, don’t call it “exclusive”.
- Don’t lie to me. Parties to which we send out written invitations don’t last three days. Parties that last three days don’t shut down at nine in the evening. It’s not a party; it’s you wanting to move some inventory.
Don’t lie to me. Level with me. I’ll respect you for it. And I tend to do business with people I respect.
InfoWorld Magazine, in their TechWatch section, takes humorous issue with the same sort of gobbledygook despised by David Scott (see a recent post of mine). Read author Matt Hines’ article about security analyst Nick Selby’s“BullsIT Awards”, Poking Fun at Tech PR:
Our friends in the PR community can probably say the same thing about some of the stories we in the IT media produce on our side of the business, but, it is intensely fun from time-to-time to examine some of the worst examples of marketing lingo that get hurled at us on a regular basis.
I loved Selby’s reference to Lisa Simpson of The Simpsons: “This reminds me of Lisa Simpson visiting Australia and, on seeing on a cinema a sign reading, ‘Yahoo Serious Festival,’ she said, ‘I know those words, but that sign makes no sense.'”
Here’s a great rule for sales and marketing, taken from David Meerman Scott’s ChangeThis article, The Gobbledygook Manifesto: “When you write, start with your buyers, not with your product”.
David Scott, the author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, says it best in introducing his manifesto: “Oh jeez, not another flexible, scalable, groundbreaking, industry-standard, cutting-edge product from a market-leading, well positioned company! Ugh. I think I’m gonna puke!” In every company description, on websites, in press releases, in corporate pamphlets, the same adjectives get used over and over until they are meaningless. Scott analyzed thousands of these offerings and presents a collection of the most over-used and under-meaningful phrases…and strategies for making the most of these communication opportunities.
His ideas don’t just apply to business, of course. Clear and interesting comunication is useful in all areas of one’s life.
Master copywriter Harlan Kilstein made an exciting discovery recently: a videorecording of Doug O’Brien teaching his acclaimed Sleight of Mouth training to a group of salespeople. He’s mastered the video to DVD and has released it for sale.
Check out what Harlan has to say about the conversion process:
I decided on the spot to convert these VHS tapes into DVDs and encountered a glitch. The guy I hired liked the DVDs so much he kept inviting his friends over to watch them. What should have taken a week ended up taking months.
Now check out what he has to say about the content:
Most salespeople are happy if they close at a 20 to 40% rate. Most copywriters are thrilled if their copy converts 1% of the lookers into buyers. Even at these numbers, money can be made.
But what if your sales closed at an 80-90% rate? Or your copy converted 17% or more? You know what that would do for your bottom line?
These DVDs are a must-have for anyone who wants to be more persuasive in any every context.
When we’re interacting with someone, we may often think we’re just trying to let them know some important piece of information. I recently learned something, though: facts are not interesting. People only pay attention to facts if they’re attached to values. Dean Brenner wrote a pertinent manifesto for ChangeThis back in October:
Brenner believes there is a critical flaw in how we communicate. We naturally divide our communications in two approaches: to inform or to persuade. When, according to Brenner, every communication is an opportunity to persuade. Next time you hear someone say, “I just wanted to give you an update…” you’ll know an opportunity to shape opinion was missed.
From the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health comes a document for trainers: Tell Me a Story: Why Stories are Essential to Effective Safety Training. From the referenced page:
Although the mining industry has historically relied on an experiential master-apprentice model for training new employees, the formal safety training provided to miners is generally done in a classroom, with mixed results. In a series of stakeholder meetings held by NIOSH across the West in 1997-2000, trainers identified significant gaps in materials that were available to teach new and experienced miners. They asked whether NIOSH could develop effective materials to fill these perceived gaps, as well as make training more effective for those who were required to attend, but who often refused to be attentive.
This e-book is well-written and practical. Geared toward safety trainers in mining companies, it’s intended to make training count where lives are on the line. It seems to be framing good presentation-type training as a modern form of the old master-apprentice relationship. Good reading for anyone who trains to inform.
Link to NIOSH Publication No. 2005-152 (2.3 megabyte, PDF)