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The Invasion of the Ampersand & Other Naughty Punctuation

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Everyone who knows me knows I have quite a few pet peeves, but two writing related peeves really stand out – the overuse of ampersands & quotation marks for no reason.

The problem is that there is a huge invasion of text message/Twitter speak in everyday communication, and it drives me batty. And for some reason companies think they have to throw up a couple of quotation marks to distinguish their tagline.

Know what this says to me as a consumer? You’re not the real deal. That may seem a bit harsh, but I value a company that thinks about the details. Like the appropriate use of quotation marks. The purpose of these attention-grabbing symbols is to distinguish conversation in prose, quote someone or to call attention to a term that may be unfamiliar. It’s not to distinguish what your company is known for.

Moving on to the real renegade, I believe that the overuse of ampersands shows how busy we all think we are. I recently did a test to see the difference in the time it took to type this curvy, serial symbol. It takes no longer to tap a-n-d on your keyboard. So, why are we so hooked on making it part of our professional communications?

It’s the text message and Twitter in us. We have to be so pithy in our 140 or 160 characters, that this space-saver has crept into other forms of communication. But just like we had to learn to adapt our messages to Twitter and text style, we need to communicate within the style guides of our chosen medium.

Just sayin’.

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What’s Up with That Rag of a Newsletter?

ragI just received a newsletter from a company that makes social apps for Facebook. I’m not going to name names, but it was a rag. The content was so-so, but it was full of terrible grammar and the misused punctuation we writers loath. Plus, they poured on the jargon. Here’s my review.

  • The headline made reference to “must do’s.” There’s not a letter missing between “do” and “s.” It’s “must dos.” Always will be.
  • The writer mixed American and British spellings. I’m fine with receiving content from across the pond. I just don’t want to see a mix of spellings, especially from a company here in the States. I know this is a ticky detail, but I was trained to use the spelling and culture of my audience in email communications. Just sayin’!
  • The writer used single quotations repeatedly. You always use double quotation marks unless you are quoting within a quote or quoting within a headline. Ask Grammar Girl. Again, a ticky detail, but a real writer knows this stuff.
  • The writer used lots of jargon. I’m not into jargon – at all. While some companies are, I think it makes your newsletter harder to read.
  • The newsletter focused on features of their product; not benefits. I’m fine with product calls to action. However, please give me the benefit of using this feature or I won’t click.

My recommendations for turning a rag of a newsletter into a gem:

  • Write to your audience in their language.This company markets to people who use Facebook apps. The language should be simple and casual.
  • Think before you use jargon. There’s always a better way to say it. It all goes back to being simple. Don’t dilute your words.
  • Take a crash course in punctuation. It makes your emails so much prettier and professional.
  • Don’t forget to give readers benefits in all e-communications. The simple question is always “What’s in it for me?”
I love to help companies sharpen their newsletters and communications with customers. If you ever need a second set of eyes, drop me a line. Oh yeah, please check out my e-newsletter – How to Communicate Brilliantly in a Minute. Seriously, it’s a quick tip on how to improve your communications without the jargon.
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Beach Vendors – The Best Salepeople in the World?

I recently took a cruise to the Virgin Islands. We made stops at St. Thomas, St. John and St. Martin (or is it Maarten?).

Today’s story comes from the French half of the island of St. Martin (Orient Beach – the clothed side). This is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. However, it’s home to some of the best salespeople in the world.

Seriously, the beach vendors are some of the most skilled salespeople I’ve ever seen. They fall into a few categories – ware sellers, hair braiders and musicians. Here’s a quick roundup of what we can learn from them.

Begin with a compliment or suggestion.

I saw this happen every single time. They begin with making a connection. “This necklace would look lovely on you.” or “You have the face to pull off braids.” (Used on yours truly.) It plants a simple question in the prospects mind, “Really?” When they see that look of interest, they move to the next step.

Providing a bonus or sample.

The vendor picks up on your interest and begins the process of showing the value of their product or service. Most often, I heard: “We’ll give you the beads at no charge,” or “Listen to my jams (complete with 30 seconds of ‘free’ listening.)”

Focusing on the benefits for the close.

This happened to me with a hair braider. I asked for $10 worth of braids. As she was braiding, the lovely lady said, “You’d look gorgeous with your whole crown.”

She talked me into it with the ease of care, the lovely look, etc. I ended up spending $85 on 46 braids.

I had a little buyer’s remorse afterward because I like to see what I’m getting, but it was one of those things you do on vacation. I also got to interview this lady on her culture and profession. This is where I learned their most valuable sales strategy.

Selling like their life depends on it. 

The people of the islands have little industry or choice of professions, so they take their skills and put them to work. Yes, it’s a little annoying to sit on the beach and be asked to buy this or that. However, it’s an interesting study of how effective they are at sales. They do it because their livelihood lies in their drive to hit the beach and close the sale.

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Why It’s Important to Think Like a Journalist in Content Marketing

journalistWhen I went to journalism school, my dad asked me what I was going to do to support myself. I told him that money didn’t matter; I was in this for the good of the people. I even had a t-shirt to support my cause.

Well, that’s before I realized how journalism training can be in marketing communications. My internship and eventual first job was at a magazine – a pizza marketing trade to be exact. The lessons I learned there were invaluable to my business today. I got to think like a journalist and investigate the issue of an industry. And a lot more people liked me.

Today, I’m not exactly a journalist, but a marketing communications writer who gets to treat each project like a journalist on a beat. I get to scour through industry reports, blogs and news articles to create messages that resonate with my clients’ audiences. That’s why I’m so glad I got formal training in journalism. It’s a key tool in what I do. And, thinking like a journalist can help you create better content.

How Thinking Like a Journalist Enlivens Content

There’s a lot of really great marketing content out there. But, many content marketers shake their heads at why they aren’t getting the traffic or conversions they want.

It’s because they aren’t thinking like a journalist. The number one factor in journalism is what’s most important to your audience – not the people on your sales or marketing team.

Real people read the newspaper or watch the news to see what’s happening in their world right now. They also read blogs and magazines that have to do with their specific interests or business needs. I believe this is why blogs are so popular. It’s instant information on your need-to-know subject.

Turn to the Seven Questions of Newsworthiness

A journalistic formula that never fails to help you gauge the content your audience wants is the seven questions of newsworthiness:

  • Prominence – This usually affects the people in the story. It’s why celebrities get so much attention. They are the perceived upper crust. People love to learn of their lessons and failures. Sad, but true.
  • Magnitude – The more people a topic affects the better. Why do you think people like Kenneth Cole make comments like the recent Egypt Twitter faux paux.
  • Proximity – The more close to home your message, the better it will resonate. This is often the number one item a journalist looks for. And as David Meerman Scott said yesterday in a video over at Hubspot, it’s a good idea when trying to drum up business in a local market.
  • Uniqueness – Firsts, a new take, twists, turns and one-of-a-kind feats and stories. That’s what readers want from journalists and what they want from you.
  • Timeliness – It used to be recent. Now, it’s real-time. As it happens. Live. On the spot. People love being in the know right now. It’s hard to manage, but it’s very effective.
  • Significance – Defining why this content is important to the audience is the key here. A journalist asks why this matters to the people. Your customer or prospect asks, “What’s in it for me?”
  • Human Interest – The human element helps a journalist connect the story to the readers. Adding a story or a anecdote gives your content resonance because people identify with other people.


A journalist thinks about the audience above all else. We marketers should follow suit.

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Three Reasons Not to Hire a Writer

Instead of telling you how to hire the right writer, I’d like to share three reasons not to hire a writer.

  1. You found this writer on a bidding site. Going with the lowest bidder is going to get you nowhere. You are not going to get a writer who specializes in helping you deliver your voice to your customers.
  2. You just need someone to get your ideas down on paper. A writer does more than get your thoughts on paper. A writer conveys your company’s message to the outside world. That’s why hiring a writer is a strategic decision. Your writer chief job is to convey a message that resonates with your intended audience. If the writer doesn’t ask you questions about the audience, run the other way!
  3. A writer tells you that you need a writer. You don’t just need a writer to get content and messages out to your audience. You need a plan. Sharing your brand is more than just packing a few keywords into a short article, hoping a search engine will bring you the right person at the right time. You need a strategy for your content and a writer who gets your strategy and audience. If you don’t get that combination, you need a new writer (or to get your ducks in a row).
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Confusing Crisis Communication – Kicking a Field Goal a Second Too Late

My alma mater is undergoing a crisis – in communication. We’ve been without an on-field mascot since I left the campus of Ole Miss in 2003. The administration started with proposing an updated version of Colonel Reb – which failed miserably with students, staff and alumni.

The administration then decided we would not have an on-field mascot. This went on for several years, while students banded together to form the Colonel Reb Foundation – a group that sought to continue the traditions of the University of Mississippi. The students were smart – they bought their own mascot uniform and tickets to the football games.

In the past year, this character has been denied entrance to the home games, even with a paid ticket. The students were still able to get Colonel Reb into away games. Whether you agree with it or not, this foundation has been spot-on in how they communicate their message – they will not accept a replacement for Colonel Reb.

The university is a different story plagued with Admiral Ackbar mishaps, Landsharks and now a Black Bear.

Beginning in July 2009, the student government approached the university administration to start a search for a replacement on-field mascot. The voting period ended a couple of weeks ago with the announcement that the Rebel Black Bear beat out the Landshark (a gesture that originated with the Rebel football defense turned shark character) and Hotty Toddy (a muppet-like character based on a popular school cheer).

There was also a side campaign to make Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars the mascot. There were multiple YouTube videos and a Facebook page on the possibility of making him our mascot. Instead of giving the viral campaign a shot, the administration downplayed this choice and ESPN documented the farce in a commercial that fans saw for the first time during a Labor Day 2010 Boise State game.

Everywhere I’ve gone, we’ve been given grief over this choice of mascots (quite possibly because bears make much more sense in Maine), but I’m not here to discuss the mascot choice.

I’m here to discuss the campaign the university just launched to garner support for our sports teams that seems a bit late to the game. It seems like they are kicking a field goal a second too late.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received email video messages from the chancellor and Fox News’ Shepard Smith (a long-time Ole Miss supporter and former student) on how we Rebels should unify in the face of all the uproar around the mascot.

My take is that they should have started this campaign before the controversy got started. The whole mascot selection is blowing up like it did seven years ago, but this time it’s student-led. Nothing new is happening here. It’s a complicated matter that’s just getting more confusing.

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Three Messaging Elements I Learned from a Bagel

I just finished eating a delicious bagel – made from oat flour and sprinkled with bits of oat on top. This bagel resonated with me because it had just the right recipe for success. Here’s three messaging lessons I learned from said bagel:

  1. It had the right mix of ingredients. Oat flour made the bagel sweet and savory. I didn’t want to rush through it. I wanted to savor every bite. That’s what our messages should do.
  2. It had a little bit of unexpected. The oats were not traditional bagel fare, and even though this is a common grain – the fact that it was in a bagel was unexpected. Messaging should always have a little of the unexpected.
  3. It resonated with the audience. I was so into this bagel I wanted more. It was something good enough to chew on slowly with bits of excitement peppered throughout.

Does your messaging pass the bagel test? Savory, unexpected, wanting more. Need this in your messaging? I can help. Contact me today.