03/02/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five notable communications stories from the week ending March 2, 2013.

My Secrets: How I Became a Prolific Writer and Learned to Get Beyond School Essays by Vivek Wadhwa, on the LinkedIn blog, February 25.

Wadhwa, a book author and writer for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, shows that you don’t have to be a journalist or love English grammar to be a successful writer. He taught himself to write, taking 40 hours to complete his first BusinessWeek article. He now turns out a piece in two to four hours.

He considers these to be keys to writing: “to speak fearlessly from the heart, get to the point immediately, keep the message simple and focused, and use the fewest words you can.”

19 Things Successful People Do on Social Mediaby TJ McCue, on Forbes website, February 26.

McCue offers some helpful tips here. Among them: “They publish more quality, not just quantity” and “They are genuine.”

A Revolutionary Marketing Strategy: Answer Customers’ Questions by Mark Cohen, in The New York Times, February 27.

Cohen writes about the new, highly successful marketing campaign undertaken by River Pools and Spas, a firm that installs fiberglass pools. The campaign, now at about one-tenth the cost of the company’s previous advertising budget of $250,000, consists mostly of blog posts that answer customer questions. One post has led directly to sales of at least $1.7 million.

This article provides lessons that other small companies might want to consider.

The Anti-Blog Post to Writing Better Blog Posts, a post by Mars Dorian on the {Grow} blog, February 27.

Dorian’s post takes a contrarian look at blog posts and questions the value of just echoing what others write. He suggests that before you start writing, you ask yourself these questions: “Are you creating an original piece of work, or are you merely soaking up the sound waves from the echo chamber?”

Too many bloggers, he suggests, are reading each other’s posts, mashing the information together, and slamming “out another samey samey blog post.” To avoid this routine, he offers five “anti-guidelines” for crafting original, compelling content. One guideline: “Allow your personal truth to shine through.”

Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by Jennifer Kane, on the SteamFeed website, March 2.

In this post, Kane, a marketing/communications strategist, points to a fact often overlooked: Long-form content on the Web is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “ weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds that “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Kane’s “secrets” make up some of these rules and provide a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop better long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document or its component parts (headlines, sentences, paragraphs, etc.) but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

If you are interested in writing long-form content, you will want to read this post. I found her “secrets”—including the unannounced sixth one that you can find in the last paragraph—to be accurate and helpful.

Comments Affect Your Readers’ Perception

shutterstock_94785103Here’s a study finding that should concern online writers of all sorts: Comments made by early readers of your piece may significantly affect the way later readers perceive what you’ve written.

The Guardian, Scientific American, and others have come to this disturbing conclusion.

Scientific American, for example, recently studied the response of readers of an article on nanotechnology. The article was sent to two groups of readers. For the first group, it was accompanied by “polite, civil and constructive comments”; for the second, by “uncivil comments.”

In writing about the study in a January 28 post, Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at the magazine, said:

The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The finding is concern enough—at least for me, and I would assume for other writers and their readers. But added to this conclusion is this belief by many people who study the practice of commenting on blog posts and other online content: The quality of comments has deteriorated over the past few years.

Many of those who once took advantage of the comment section to share their thoughts about a post now put their comments on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, or have stopped commenting all together—leaving only trolls to comment on the actual site of the content. (A troll, according to Wikipedia “is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages in an online community.”)

So, it seems that even if you write about a topic that readers approach with no preconceived opinion, there’s a good chance that they will misinterpret what you write and will decide not to trust your content because they have been influenced by commentsScreen Shot 2013-02-07 at 3.17.29 PM made by trolls.

This potential for misinterpretation and distrust worries me, as I think it should anyone concerned about open dialogue and discourse. It’s not easy to write clear, concise content that gets across to the reader the exact message you hope to convey. It becomes almost impossible to deliver the desired message when someone is undermining your attempt to do so.

If, for example, you’re writing about the role PR can play in establishing your company’s brand within your community of stakeholders, you want your readers to know that both PR and a company’s brand are good things and can help the company grow its customer base, industry leadership, and profits. You don’t want someone who hates PR to comment incorrectly that PR is lies, untruths, and a snake-oil saleman’s fast-talk and that it develops a made-up “brand” as a gimmick to sell customers what they don’t need or want.

A thoughtful comment about the pros and cons of public relations by someone who knows what he or she is talking about might encourage your readers to think more thoroughly about what you’ve written. That result, in turn, could add to the conversation within your community of readers. It may also help you better think through your message the next time you write about PR and branding.

But “inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages” help no one. And they may, in fact, make conscientious bloggers and other writers of online content think twice about whether they really should write their posts in the first place. If they decide not to write them, we all lose.

The Wrong Message

The note stuck to the headboard of our bed in the hotel room said, “Duvet covers & sheets are clean for your arrival.”

The grammar-conscious, observant reader would, first, notice the missing period at the end of the sentence in this note. And then wonder why whoever printed it would take the time and care to choose a friendly, handwritten-inspired typeface, print the message on a Post-it note, and put it on our headboard—but not proofread it to catch the errant period.

As important as correct punctuation is, something more significant trumps the missing period in this sentence: the overall message.

Some guests, I’m sure, wonder what inspired the local hotel manager or the executives of the hotel chain to leave such a message. Did they really think that telling guests that the linens were clean when they arrived would make them feel better during their stay?

It doesn’t.

Telling guests that the linens are clean this time only forces them to question whether they were not clean the last time they checked in. It causes them to wonder why there weren’t notes saying that the bath towels and face cloths were clean, too, and other notes pointing out that the carpet had been vacuumed and the counters washed.

We’ve stayed in this hotel perhaps ten times over the past four years and never felt the need to question whether the linens were clean or whether anything else was not up to our expectations. The note, however, landed as an apology, an apology for not having done a good job in the past and for having gotten caught in this failure. It seemed as if management was trying to make up for past mistakes.

Making sure the linens are clean, one would assume, is a given at any hotel in America. It’s a fundamental part of being a hotel, in fact.

One wonders how diners would feel if they sat down in their favorite restaurant and found on the table a note stating, “Tonight we are going to cook your meal,” or how airline passengers would feel hearing the flight attendant say, “Welcome aboard. Today, we are going to miss all the other planes in the sky and land safely at our destination.”

It seems clear that no business needs to point out that its employees have done the fundamental tasks of their jobs. Such declarations undercut the intended message, leaving hotel guests, diners, or airline passengers questioning whether they should look for another hotel, a new restaurant or a different airline. Even for the most ardent customer, it weakens confidence in the company.

Neither a company nor its customers benefit when communicators skip the effort to thoroughly think through what they are trying to say and when they fail to consider how the words they choose will actually be received.

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Update

About nine months after we last stayed at this hotel, we visited it again this past week.IMG_0437

The note about clean duvet covers and sheets is still stuck to the headboard. Perhaps more surprising, though, is that this sign (to the right) is now fastened, like a 1 ½’ x 2’ piece of art inside one of the hotel elevators.

Although trying to look up-to-date and catchy, this sign continues to stress the same wrong message first delivered by the note stuck to the headboard.

A Small Step and a Giant Leap

Photo: NASA

With last Saturday’s death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, I began wondering who wrote the now-famous line Armstrong said on July 20, 1969, as he placed the first human foot on the moon’s surface: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I assumed the statement was not spontaneous, that it was, instead, written by a PR or communications person at NASA, perhaps months before the launch, to make sure the first moon-based words were memorable.

Everyone seems to agree that the words didn’t come to Armstrong just as he stepped off the lunar module. But it turns out that the answer to who wrote one of the world’s most famous statements is not so easily determined.

Armstrong maintained that he composed the phrase in his mind after the spacecraft landed on the moon and before he took the first moonwalk. But a now-retired British engineer, Gary Peach, who worked in a satellite tracking station in Australia during the flight, claims to have made it up before the launch. He says he did not want the first words to be about the moon’s dust. He is quoted by theage.com.au as saying, “I thought, being Americans, they might say: ‘Holy chicken s**t look at all that f***ing dust’. I felt that would not be a suitable thing to be quoted in history books until eternity.”

The history books do now, and will continue to, quote what Armstrong said—maybe. The exact phrase, however, is still being debated. Most people think he said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what it sounded like to the millions of people who watched the landing on TV, to the engineers and scientists at NASA, and to dozens of reporters there, many who were so concerned about getting the quote correct that they gathered later to discuss what they heard and to come up with a consensus so they would all report it the same way.

What both Armstrong and Peach claim to have composed is slightly different from the official statement. They have said their statements have an “a” before the word “man,” making it read as “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That’s certainly what Armstrong meant to say, contends everybody involved. Whether or not he did will probably never be known. In later years, Armstrong said that he may have left the “a” out of the statement. But audio experts who have listened to the tape, even within the past few years, are not sure. The static blocks out the letter, but the tape could contain a microsecond of space between the preceding and succeeding words, indicating that the single-letter word was actually said, but not heard.

Most people also agree that there is a significant difference between the meaning of the two statements. The composed statement means that one man made the step that represents mankind’s giant leap. The quote, on the other hand, says that mankind took both the step and the leap, a phrase that does not compare the action of one man to that of all humanity.

People seem to know what Armstrong meant and have never questioned what he actually said. So it may seem to some as if it doesn’t matter what he uttered as he stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the moon. But those of us working in business communications know that the words we put in (and leave out) of our statements and documents determine the messages our audiences will actually construct from what we’ve written. If we want to be understood correctly, we need to write carefully.