Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Answer 3 Questions to Captivate Readers

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Some people think that rules of writing don’t apply universally to all writing genres. That’s not quite true. While developing a novel does differ from writing a memo—and one of my writing class mantras is “memos aren’t mystery novels”—overall, more commonalities than differences exist.

When you understand that, you’ll be better equipped to tackle multiple writing tasks.

Let’s face it. No one solely writes memos or reports. Even if you write only web content every day, it’s rarely on the same topic or for the same audience.

So, how can you captivate your audience, regardless of the topic or their knowledge of it?

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Then make sure your writing answers three questions:

  • What’s in it for me?
  • Why should I care?
  • What should I do about it?

It’s easier to show this than explain it, so here’s a short example. Note that the topic sounds “technical,” but only some of the target audiences will have any background to understand this from a “technical” point of view. How you present the topic and what you focus on are key. See how those differ by writing genre and target audience.

Topic: new bone marrow transplant procedure to treat secondary cancer arising after treatment of primary cancer

Type of writing

Target Audience

What’s in it for me?

Why should I care?

What should I do about it?

Newsletter   article/web content


I may need
this some day
Know the latest Bookmark/save
Grant   application Review committee

Cull the best of the best research

Emerging clinical application Approve funding
Memo to
OR staff
Surgical team

How can
my team prepare for this

Adapt to/use the latest techniques

Assess resources, information gaps and training needs
Memo to
Risk Management
HR, nursing, quality improvement

Understand patient and physician

Assess treatment,
length-of-stay and discharge policies
Rewrite policies if needed
Report Insurance companies Understand latest treatment options Determine insurability, based on
results to date

Assess: monetary risk w/ coverage, how to process claims, whether to write new policies re. eligibility

Ever hear advertising folks talk about “pain points?” The goal of every ad is to touch a nerve, speaking so deeply to an audience that it moves them to action. That concept isn’t limited to advertising. All audiences want to be able to relate to what they read or hear—they want it to “speak” to them. Figure out how to “speak” to your audience by asking the three questions listed above—and answering them in your writing.

Universal application.

Even Mitt Romney needs a Proofreader

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Typos are oh-so-easy to make—and so much harder to catch. Case in point: a gaff in a recent Mitt Romney campaign app went viral when it urged people to stand with Mitt for “A Better Amercia.” OUCH.

NBC Nightly News had a good one recently, too: “The Propsal.” You’d think an organization of that caliber would catch that. Alas, no. Why?

News outlets are striving to survive in an increasingly paperless world. So they’re sending copyeditors out their back door while ushering web designers in their front door. (Expect to see more typos. Not that web designers can’t read, but copyediting isn’t their thing—or their job description.)

The New York Times recently had a tongue-clucking headline, too: “Black, White, and Moron [Mormon] all Over.”

So many words in the English language differ by only one letter or can get screwed up by moving one letter. For example:

  • Steakholders (must need really big forks)
  • Frothcoming (watch for overfilled beer mugs)
  • Monkey/money (monkey laundering?)
  • Contact/contract (contact negotiations–to just hold hands?)
  • Pool/poll
  • Man/mean
  • Brain/bran
  • Dear/dead
  • Native/naïve

You get the picture.

Most people would admit (if pressed) that no one can read something he or she wrote as well as someone else can. But maybe there’s no one around to copyedit or proofread for you—and you have a big presentation, report, or grant application on the line. What do you do?

Learn how to do it yourself.

It’s not rocket science, but it takes some practice and discipline. Most people don’t do it because they don’t know how or where to start. I take the guesswork out of that in my book, Proofread Like a Pro. That may sound like a shameless plug for my book. But, in all my years of writing (and in preparing to write my book), I’ve never seen anyone else actually set forth a SYSTEM for how to do it.

Don’t spend time writing a report, memo, or manuscript and simply hope that it’s OK. No one gets it perfect the first time around. And statistics show that communications riddled with typos and other errors lose credibility. So do the smart thing and work the system: my system—called 3/9/3—in my book.

Avoid PowerPoint Blunders

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

My last post ended with a blurb about how the Center for Plain Language was about to bestow its first awards for best and worst official writing. The finalists were a hoot—NPR’s article even included a smidgen of samples from the finalists. The winners are posted now, and what a letdown! We have just their names—no writing samples. But I got a few grins from the category names: ClearMark awards for the best writing, WonderMark awards for the worst (i.e., “it’s a wonder anyone can understand this”).

No matter. Bad writing is as easy to find as cherry blossoms in springtime DC. A prime example is the PowerPoint slide that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, showed last summer to portray the complexity of American military strategy there. According to a New York Times article, the slide looked like a bowl of spaghetti. I agree.

OK, Afghanistan is a complex topic. But the point of PowerPoint is to make complex information simple and easy to grasp at a glance while someone elaborates on the main points.

Instead, many people try to cram as much detail onto a slide as they can. If it doesn’t fit, they make it fit with teeny text. That’s bad graphic design and worse instructional design. You don’t want a room full of over-40 people squinting at your slide, then at you.

So here are some PowerPoint tips:

  • Think big. PowerPoint is designed to be seen across a room. Make your slide headings at least 28 points high. Type should be no less than 18 points.
  • If your headings are more than one line long, edit them.
  • If you have more than five or six bulleted items per page, create a second page of information.
  • If you have more than one layer of sub-bullets, reorganize the information.
  • Think hierarchy. Does each part of the slide provide a roadmap for what people should look at first, second, third?
  • Think visual medium. Use charts, graphs, pictures and other ways besides words to depict information.
  • Think summary. Slides should give people the “big picture.” Save the details for your talk.
  • Use parallel construction to write bullets. If a verb starts one bullet, start the other bullets with verbs. A verb is the most powerful word in a sentence or phrase—use it to your advantage.
  • Pick colors everyone can see. Yellow on black works, but not red on black.
  • Pick fonts judiciously. Fancy fonts don’t work—neither do fonts with thin serifs. Pick something substantial and easy to read.
  • Don’t keep one slide on screen for 2 minutes while you drone. That will effectively tranquilize your audience.
  • Visually separate references from the rest of your text. 

Whether you produce your own slides or have the job of proofing someone else’s, my book Proofread like a Pro gives you many tips on what to look for in PowerPoint slides. Check it out!