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Ellen Cline, writer
Creative communication that markets, informs, and entertains

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“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

Author: ; Published: May 11, 2011; Category: Business Writing, Communications Tools, Editing and Proofing, Message Simplicity; Tags: , , , , , ; No Comments

Blaise Pascal

Often time is limited and something needs to go out now. As Blaise Pascal stated, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." In other words, writing fast and writing concisely are often at odds.

I do a profile each week for the Church of Beethoven. I have 140 words and maybe 15 minutes to do it.

For tweets from Working Like Dogs and National Assistance Dog Week (@WLDogs and @NADWeek) which I started doing recently, I have 140 characters and no time.

What do I get out of it? For the 140-word Church of Beethoven profiles, I interview an audience member or volunteer before or after the show. The profile appears in the weekly e-news that goes out on Wednesdays. I learn a lot of amazing things about the people, their interests, their background, and their work, so that’s fun.

For the 140-character tweets, which I actually almost always do through Facebook (trying to save time by posting once), I have to skim news items and figure out what the main point is, then make it short. So like the profiles, I learn a lot, but am always in a hurry, struggling to be efficient, accurate, yet hopefully interesting.

But what about the readers? What do they get out of it? Are these items reaching and teaching or motivating them?

Now that we have less time and space than ever, are we getting better at focusing our messages? Or just creating large quantities of short and not very meaningful messages?

There have always been limitations for marketing professionals: the ¼ page print ad, the billboard, the :15 second spot, the text link on the web page. And of course there’s editing to fit the space:  I just had to cut someone’s op-ed down from 1200 words to 600.

But do extremely short messages, like tweets, push us even further?  And do they really help us communicate effectively?

It’s not just brevity, but speed. When we have to get something out before it is no longer news, that makes it a rush. When we have to make it short, and do it fast, have we gone beyond what is possible? 

Going back to that quote from Pascal—everyone seems to understand that writing short takes more time. But in the current zeitgeist we are expected to do both, fast and short, each and every time. Is this really working?

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Work first, play later

Author: ; Published: Jun 22, 2010; Category: Business Writing, Message Simplicity; Tags: , , ; No Comments

Marketing is not always one big party

People always think being in marketing or advertising is fun, fun, fun.

Well, not really. 

Sure there’s the creative part, but quite often people try to skip steps and get to the fun part first.  You know, they want to eat dessert before they’ve had their vegetables.  It’s human nature.  But sometimes you just have to be an adult and do the hard work.

When coming up with creative ideas, whether it’s a corporate ID, a website, an ad, a brochure, a tradeshow display, first you have to figure out what you’re trying to say–in plain English, not in some kind of cute headline.  It’s a process, not one-step instant gratification.

I sometimes call this the slogging through the mud phase.  Yes, you must get down and get dirty before all becomes clean and bright. So you sort through a lot of stuff which doesn’t seem to really make sense but as you sort, gradually it becomes clearer and clearer.  Suddenly you know where you need to go. Then you can come up with the way you’re going to get there.

This is something I learned when I did a two-year program of advertising classes focused on copywriting and creative concept.  We studied and had to practice the process over and over.  It was the same process we followed in LA at ad agencies. No coming up with the headlines and main visual, let alone writing the body copy, until you knew what the purpose of the communication was, who you were talking to and why.  

Only after doing the hard work did you get your reward, getting to begin coming up with the creative for the project. Of course thinking of good creative concepts can also be hard work in its own way, but in some ways, it’s more like play—a  challenge, but fun.

If you define what you want to tell your audience first, then it’s much easier come up with a creative way for the words and images to say that.  Not to mention that you’ll end up with a much more effective communications piece. 

The clever headline and pictures will come, but they’re not first.  When you do them first what you end up is a communications piece that doesn’t work.  Sure, at first glance it may look slick and professional, but if it’s not really about anything, what’s the point?

When clients want to jump ahead to the creative phase first, I try to educate them. When communications professionals I’ve encountered do it, I think, shouldn’t you know better?

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Style manuals and style guides—tools for building consistency

Author: ; Published: Apr 5, 2010; Category: Business Writing, Communications Tools, Editing and Proofing, Message Simplicity; Tags: , , , , , ; No Comments

Guidelines icon

Choosing and using a style manual and producing and using an in-house style guide help a company create and maintain consistency in their communications. Consistency always furthers an organization’s professional image.

The style manual most people seem to have heard of is the Associated Press Stylebook. I’ve done work for organizations where I’ve been told things like: We follow AP style but we use the title Dr. for our researchers preceding their names which AP says not to do. Then the client might go on to tell me several other ways their house style diverges from AP style.

Exceptions like this should be covered in a company style guide. The in-house style guide might spell out items like the usage of the company product names and logos, but it also can detail where company usage differs from the guidelines set forth in the style manual.

I did not study Journalism in college so I did not learn about AP style until later in my career. When I had to follow it for some projects my first thought was, you’ve got to be kidding. To me, the book has always been difficult to use and illogical as it has:

  • No index. 
  • A system for filing items under alphabetical titles that seemed haphazard, at best. 
  • Rules that supposedly stemmed from the limitations of metal type.

Even though it is considered a guide for academic writing, I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style as a reference. It has an index so you can find things. And there are a lot more things to find as the book is really comprehensive, including information about grammar. Not everything in it applies to every project. But it’s somewhere to start.

First, if your group does not have a particular style manual it follows, you might want to decide which would be best suited for your needs. Elizabeth G. Frick and Elizabeth A. Frick wrote an article in the Society for Technical Communication magazine, Intercom, which discussed style manuals and style guides and referred readers to a handy style manual matrix they created that compares the different style manuals. Their chart shows the history and purpose of each book, and can help you choose which you might want to use.

Style manuals do differ on what they feel is correct on topics like hyphenation, formatting of web addresses, and the serial comma, aka the Oxford comma. Believe it or not, people get excited about whether or not it is proper to use that last comma in a series before the “and.” I recently found out there’s even a Facebook group, "Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma." (For the record, I like the serial comma as it does add clarity in many situations. AP, however, says no to the serial comma.)

Style manuals give you rules and standards for writing and formatting different types of written materials. They do not all agree on what the standards are. Your company or organization may have decided which style manual to follow, but then there are inevitably exceptions to the rules. In that case a style guide might be created, just for your organization.

Your style guide doesn’t need to repeat what is in your chosen style manual; it can just talk about where your in-house style differs from the reference book and tackle issues of interest to your organization.

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