Saturday, March 25, 2006

Did you get the message?

The most effective business communications are reader-focused.

Reader-focused writing is more than just good, clear communication. It's writing that's focused on the relevance of the information to the audience. Creating reader-focused writing takes effort and attention. Basically, you have to think about things like:

  • What does the reader need to know?
  • What is relevant to the reader?
  • What does the reader care about?
  • Have I answered the reader's questions, or addressed the reader's concerns?

I was reminded of how important reader-focused communication is rather unexpectedly yesterday, so I thought I'd share the story.

I recently joined the Board of a local food bank. The food bank's proper name includes the name of the neighborhood it originally served. A few years ago, however, it moved to a new location and its mission has expanded to include more than serving as a food pantry. As a result, the organization's been trying to establish a new "brand" and it now goes by its initials (which are stylized into a colourful logo).

Unfortunately, it's initials don't form a particularly interesting or memorable acronym. (I'll call the food bank: Silly Name Food Bank, making the acronym: SNFB. Obviously, that's not the real name, but that's very close to the actual acronym, which is four consonants (the last two being FB, for food bank).)

Yesterday we had a fundraiser at a number of subway stations, asking riders for spare change. The transit authority gave us permission to run the event, but required volunteers to be clearly identified as being with the organization. Since the purpose was to raise money to help cover operating costs (the money wasn't to buy food, as most people might have expected), the campaign was called: Help us keep the lights on at SNFB! This slogan -- the "main message" --was printed on the t-shirts in bold, easy-to-read lettering.

It didn't take long to realize that as people walked past us they saw SNFB in big letters on our shirts, but that didn't mean anything to them. We quickly realized we got people's attention by shouting out sentences emphasizing the words food bank (things like "spare change for the food bank" or "the food bank needs your help") instead of the campaign's official slogan.

This was a classic case where the communication was clear (even simple), but ineffective because the message wasn't relevant to the audience. Though there are rationale reasons for the food bank to be moving away from its official name, emphasizing the "brand" didn't serve us in this situation. What we needed to focus on was what was important to the subway riders as they passed us: who is hitting me up for cash? The message they needed was that it was a food bank (in other words, a worthy cause) soliciting.

Fortunately, because we were there in person, our loud shouts appealing to people to support the FOOD BANK trumped the non-reader-focused messages of our t-shirts and Torontonians generously opened their wallets to support the cause.

It was a good lesson. You can bet that in future fundraising campaigns we'll all be paying attention to what the audience needs to know, not just to the message we want to get across.

Friday, March 17, 2006

But we were told not to...

I write a biweekly e-column and a recent one provoked my sister to e-mail me to say she thinks I'm slacking off on my attention to grammar. Specifically, she commented that I shouldn't be starting sentences with "but" and "and".

In response, I told her what I tell people in my writing seminars all the time: it's perfectly acceptable to start sentences with "and", "but", "because", and so on. Indeed, starting sentences with such words is an especially effective way of drawing attention to a contrasting idea or of adding emphasis.

For the most part, rules of grammar we learned as children serve us well in our adult life. But, sometimes the things we were told were rules (and therefore never to be broken) weren't rules at all -- they were more "rules of thumb" designed to avoid more serious problems. Indeed, the "rule" my sister pointed out probably developed because when children started a sentence with one of those words, they usually wrote a sentence fragment (for example: "But I was tired.") and it was easier to set down a rule against starting sentences with such words than to explain what a sentence fragment was to an eight-year-old. (So, another way of looking at it is this: as long as you write a complete sentence, there's no reason you shouldn't start it with one of the forbidden words.)

The wonderful thing about language is that it's dynamic. (If you need proof of this, just consider the difference between Shakespeare's English and today's.) The changes to our language result in the addition of new words (and new meanings to old words) and modification of the so-called rules of grammar.

Perhaps the main justification for taking liberties with some of the rules of grammar we grew up with is that rigid adherence to these rules tends to lead to formal, pompous-sounding writing that is no longer accepted in today's business communications. (If you need an example of the evolution away from overly formal writing consider the (welcome) fact that in modern contracts you won't find phrases like: "the party of the first part" and "the party of the second part".)

So go ahead -- feel free to start your sentences with "and", "but" and "because" if it'll suit your purpose and style. And, if someone tells you you shouldn't do that, just tell them I said you could!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Sleeping on it

Before starting this blog I argued with my friend Sandy that the pressure regarding the quality of blog postings was different for a writing consultant than for an IT consultant. Obviously, I got over those concerns but I don't mind admitting that I'm probably not a "true" blogger because I rarely simply sit down, write an entry and post it. I usually compose it and then save it in draft form for awhile, revising it from time-to-time before publishing it.

In defense of my blogging technique, I see it as simply following my own advice. You see, in my writing seminars I urge participants to always allow themselves enough time after finishing a document to let it sit overnight and re-read it the next day before sending it off. (If there isn't enough time for this, I suggest they at least put it aside and go to the gym, or go meet someone for lunch, or do something that will take their mind completely off of it for a little while.)

If you do this, when you come back to the document (preferably the next day) and re-read it, I guarantee you'll catch some mistake (hopefully it'll be an easy-to-fix typo, but it could be something more significant) that you didn't catch before.

The reason for this is simple: while you're working on a document your mind is so focused on the subject at hand, you simply don't notice things like typos. (Indeed, for the same reason your mind sometimes even glosses over important details.) So, by putting the document aside while you concentrate on something else (whether it's bench pressing more at the gym, or listening to your friend's boyfriend problems over a coffee), when you go back to the document your mind is refreshed and you'll be more in the position of the reader than the writer.

If you don't believe me, sleep on it. Then let me know!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Something to aspire to

This morning I was reading Barbara Minto's excellent book, The Pyramid Principle (3rd Ed.) and I came across a comment that moved me so much, I have to write about it.

Here's the quote (page 160):

"Your objective should be to dress your ideas in a prose that will not only communicate them clearly, but also give people pleasure in the process of absorbing them." (emphasis mine)

I just love the idea of writing with the intention of giving people pleasure in the process of absorbing ideas! What a great -- even noble -- goal to aspire to when creating business communications. Talk about reader-focused writing!

I just had to share this ...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Lost in translation

Canada has two official languages: English and French. As a result, many of my clients' communications are published in both languages. Being (hopelessly) unilingual, I never get directly involved in the translation process. But, that doesn't mean I don't think about it when I write or edit things for those clients.

Planning and production issues
The most obvious impact translation has on any communication project is the need to schedule time for the translation in the overall production schedule. You'd be surprised how many times this is overlooked. As a consultant, I always ask if the client plans on having a French version. If the answer is yes, I always confirm that they have a translator they use (otherwise I will help them find one). I also urge them to contact the translator as soon as possible to make sure he or she can do it based on our planned time frame.

Aside from scheduling, another production-type concern to keep in mind relates to the length of the document. For lack of a better way of describing it, French is wordier than English. (The rule of thumb I use is that a French translation will be about 30% longer than the English version.) So, if you have absolute restrictions on the length of a document, if the English text "just fits", the French version definitely won't! (If this happens you'll be faced with the unenviable -- and time consuming -- decision of either simply cutting some of the text from the French version or going back and shortening the English version and then re-translating.)

KISS: Keeping it simple and straightforward
The last -- but probably most important -- thing to keep in mind when you know a document will be translated is to choose words that are easy to translate and to avoid words and phrases that may carry subtle meanings. Things like jargon and industry terms -- and even expressions that are currently popular -- don't translate well. In other words, though there might be literal translations for the words, meaning that may be inferred by readers of the original will not necessarily be conveyed in the translated version. Also, keeping the sentence structure simple will make translating easier, saving time and decreasing the risk of mis-translation.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

What's in style?

When discussing a project with a new client, I always ask whether they have a style sheet. A style sheet can take many forms, but it basically refers to any formal standards the business has regarding written communications.

Companies with marketing/communications staff often have some rules regarding style, but style sheets are useful for all businesses, not just the very large.

Why bother having a style sheet?
Having a style sheet requires a bit of thought and consideration. But, assuming that the way you present your business is of interest to you, time put into deciding on standards related to your written communications is well spent.

A style sheet is especially important if more than one person in your organization does any of the writing. Having style guidelines that everyone is expected to follow increases the likelihood that communications rise to at least a minimum level. Think of the style guidelines as a kind of quality control for your firm's communications.

What should be covered in the style sheet?
There are no hard-and-fast rules about what guidelines the style sheet might cover, but the organization's particular communication needs provide clues as to what common concerns should be addressed.

Here are some common style and format issues you might address on your style sheet:
  • permissible (or preferred) fonts -- also consider whether you use the same font in headings and text
  • permissible (or preferred) font sizes
  • numbers of heading and sub-headings used in documents -- this should definitely be addressed if you use templates for things like newsletters or reports
  • spelling conventions -- this may sound odd, but certain words can be spelled (or represented) in a few ways. (If you can't imagine what I'm talking about, consider: percent, per cent, and %.)
  • formal/informal tone -- the trend is toward a less formal tone in business writing, for example, using first person (I, we)
  • use of gender-neutral language
  • formatting rules (or preferences) -- for example, whether to indent at the start of a paragraph, whether to right justify text, etc.
  • rules (or suggestions) regarding punctuation of vertical (bullet) lists -- this is a very sticky subject -- all I'll say about it here is that everyone seems to have their own rules. The best you can do is develop guidelines and require people to apply them as consistently as possible, knowing that there will be plenty of people that question the guidelines.

Lots of other things can be addressed in your style sheet, but this gives you some ideas to start with. Of course, once you've developed your style sheet, you'll probably find there are lots of things you could add to it. By all means, do!