Saturday, October 2, 2010

Enough Said: How Twenty-Five-Cent Words and Two-Bit Word Choice Don’t Add Up

Can you guess which popular ad campaign of the twentieth century I have destroyed with unneeded elaboration and fancy, “twenty-five-cent” words?

Think moustaches on super models – milk moustaches.

Yes, it was the stunningly popular and often parodied “got milk?” campaign.

Can you imagine driving by this billboard, trying to read (and understand) all of the words? Plus, where would we fit the supermodel and her milk moustache?

Clearly, the “got milk?” phrase was effective because of its colloquial brevity.

When you need to grab a reader who may have either limited time or attention, you need to use as few words as possible and make your point clear.

Good web writing, for example, is brief, because a web audience is on the hunt for something specific. The best web pages know this and make it easy for web users to find the information they need quickly – helped in large part by the page descriptions that come up on search engines.

Web writing technique is easily applied to good ol‘ fashion print. If you’re writing a sales proposal or a marketing brochure, don’t waste your reader’s time by using all the words you know. In your effort to over-inform, you risk losing the reader’s attention, resulting in the reader retaining none of the information you were trying to share.

And the reader might think you (and your brand) are boring.

One caveat, I love descriptive narrative, the kind that you find in rich novels, with evocative language, sonorous rhythm. All that. In this post, I’m focusing on writing for the ADHD or customer crowd. You don’t have as much time to get your message to these audiences.

Think caffeinated monkeys.

When I edit sales proposals, I notice a tendency for my coworkers to try to “fancify” their language. They probably think it will lend them more credibility with potential customers, because (they think) they’ll sound smart.

“Smart” to me is being efficient with language and with your audience’s time.

One of the most common twenty-five-cent words those smart coworkers use is “utilize”.

Utilize is a fancy way to say use. “Use”, itself, seems bland, although efficient. Also, “use” may have a tarnished reputation thanks to drug “users” or other selfish people who “use” other people. We’re taking it back.

For one thing, “utilize” is a seven-letter word. "Use" is three. By more than doubling the letters, do we gain any more information by reading “utilize” versus “use”?

Consider the following three examples, including one efficient sentence that “nails it”:

Twenty-five cent: The carpenter utilized a hammer to pound the nails that connected the two-by-fours to the beams.

Better: The carpenter used a hammer to pound the nails that connected the two-by-fours to the beams.

Efficient: The carpenter nailed the two-by-fours to the beams.

Trying to find ways to reduce words and to emphasize key ideas is not just surgery (simply lopping off words). It’s more about “puzzling”, assembling the pieces so that your “picture” is clear.

I am hopeful that you are capable of utilizing the conceptions that I have posted within this blog post to your advantage.

Or, in the smart version:

Hope this helps.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

BILLBOARD FAIL: I tawt I saw a fatty cat

This billboard bothers me.

I need to pick this apart. Call it therapy.

I drove by this monstrosity three times before I figured out what it was for.

I thought, at various turns, that it was an ad for an online video gaming service, a bowling alley, or, more interestingly, an online bi-dimensional dating service.

First of all, the composition is horrible. An oversized Tweetie Bird (in disturbing diapers or short-shorts) is apparently levitating on the left-hand side with no connection with the human on the right. She doesn't seem to notice the floating cartoon character at all. She is distracted by the messages she is receiving from the "other side" via her glowing crystal ball.

Secondly, I hate Tweetie Bird. I always have. I always rooted for Sylvester.

Thirdly, the campaign is put out by, one of the vehicles for the First Lady's message to get kids more active, but that message is lost in this jumble-tron.

The tagline on the billboard is "Play One Hour A Day", but it took me several reads before I realized that the "play" to which it refers is used in the sense of "go outside and play", and not "stay inside and play World of Warcraft while eating frozen pizza bites".

But that brings me back to Tweetie Bird, a cartoon character.

From television.

Which generally is inside the house and invitingly close to both couch and refrigerator.

Beyond that, are the kids of today deep into Warner Brothers characters that inspired America's Greatest Generation to win the big war against fascism 70 years ago?

Maybe Tweetie's contract has gone public domain.

(I at least would have picked Yosemite Sam. Then the tagline would have been "Git runnin' outside or I'll plug ya full of lead, ya fat, lazy varmits!")

Is there congruency between the pairing of Tweetie Bird and the she-who-cannot-be-named athlete and the message of "get active"?

I think you can answer that for yourself by imagining some alternate headlines for this billboard. That exercise reveals how un-dynamic this duo is. Feel free to post your alternate headlines in the comment box.

Here's how I imagine the genesis of Billboard Fail...

"Okay," says the campaign manager, "Let's balance our cut-rate cartoon character with a famous professional athlete, like Shaq or Michael Jordan."

"Good idea," the financial guy says, checking some numbers. "Would you settle for a female professional athlete?"

"Well, certainly," the campaign manager says. "We are trying to appeal to girls, and they need positive role models."

"Great," the financial guy says. "How's about if we pick someone who nobody knows, and we make it look like she's holding a glowing crystal ball."

"Perfect!" the campaign manager says. "It'll have that psychic hotline feel we were looking for!"

Then the art direct jumps in, saying he can really mangle it by the composition and then choosing Coca Cola red for the background so kids get hungry AND bored when they see the billboard.

"Trifecta!" the campaign manager yelps. "Let's put it in low-income neighborhoods with a high porportion of households where English is spoken only as a second language."

"Bees knees!" agrees the art director.

What is odd is that the site is actually very clean and cohesive with lots of interesting content. The image shown on this screenshot would have been more effective on the billboard than the one they chose. That photo has energy, positive role models, and no obnoxious cartoon birds.

My hunch is that the "print" campaign was led by a different firm than the web campaign, which in today's age of web supremacy is a mistake.

In fact - and this is only slightly tangential - the web versus print discussion mirrors American partisan politics. On the one hand the traditional print adherents (Republicans, in this analogy) cling to the ideas and formats of the past (heck, the Bible was printed, after all).

On the other hand, webmeisters sail in a glowing sea of imperfection, knowing that content will change and mistakes can be corrected on the fly.

But a frickin' billboard is forever, at least in the emotionally scarring sense.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Plastic Bags and Other Missed Opportunities

California’s proposed statewide ban on plastic bags did not pass, and this post isn’t meant to be a commentary on the value of such a ban. This is a post about missed opportunities.

Like everything else in the public realm now-a-days, the plastic bag issue became another forum for polarization: tree-hugging pro-choice lefties on one side and gun-toting environment-hating righties on the other.
Missed Opportunity #1: Find the Right Mascot
The Morning Edition (NPR) story reported:

“…At a recent rally outside the (California) state capitol, environmentalists
brought a 25-foot blow-up turtle to make a final push for the bill. The giant
plastic sea creature represented the wildlife (that) activists say is most hurt
by a sea full of discarded bags.”
An inflatable plastic sea turtle? Really? At a rally about reducing plastic usage?

Here was the first missed opportunity: Why not a turtle made from plastic bags? Or if the turtle was in deed made from recycled plastic, why not tout that information?

The sea turtle idea may be a moving symbol to marine environmentalists, but that symbol doesn’t resonate with the “swayable” – those folks who are not entrenched in either political polarity. Their collective fondness for a sea turtle is probably on par with their interest in space debris – that is to say, lukewarm.

How about a hemp Lindsay Lohan doll?

Missed Opportunity #2: It’s the Economy, Stupid
The opposition to the bill weren’t saying things like, “We love plastic bags.”
They’re saying things like what they heard in the commercial funded by the American Chemistry Council.
“California’s in trouble: 2.3 million unemployed, a $19 billion deficit. And
what are some California politicians focused on? Grocery bags.”
In fact, Keith Christman of the American Chemistry Council said he was worried about “losing 1,000 manufacturing jobs in California if plastic bags are outlawed and the cost to taxpayers who will have to buy canvas or paper bags”.

Okay, so it’s not an environmental issue: it’s an economic issue. If it’s true that state like Oregon and Washington would be next in line to ban plastic bags, wouldn’t there be an expanding market for other types of bags? Could those 1,000 workers be re-trained to operate slightly different machinery? Is there a market across the world for “eco-friendly” grocery totes that might be the catalyst to hire more employees beyond those 1,000 workers?

Missed Opportunity #3: Why is it Always “Paper OR Plastic”?
At the heart of today’s polarized politics is the idea of personal choice versus government control. From abortion to gun control; from immunizations to Obama Care. There doesn’t seem to be enough third options for us.

When the check-out clerk asks me if I want paper or plastic (and assuming I have left my eco-friendly hemp grocery tote in the Prius) do I have no other options for removing my purchases from the store? How do shoplifters do it?

Ingenuity, that’s how. (And stealth.)

Sometimes we just have to create our own third options in order to avoid the “either-or” game that is shredding the fabric of intelligent debate that the U.S. (and hey, why not the world?) needs to tackle some pretty big problems.

My advice: buy baggy pants with really big pockets.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Three Quick Tips to Get Your Content Liked, Retweeted, and Ripped Off

Tweets are racing by us. New web pages are filling the web like space debris. Even your grandmother has a blog.

How do we get our content noticed?

Here are 3 quick steps to help you reach (and increase) your audience.

1. Start with a list of SEO words
Remember those grammar exercises in school where you needed to use key words in a sentence? Having a list of SEO (search engine optimization) words is like a vocabulary list with power to pull more readers.

Consider your list of SEO words as one metric to defining success for the content. If you don’t see those key words in your content, your content is guaranteed to reach fewer new readers – an especially important consideration when you’re trying to build a regular audience.

Check out this great post from the #1 position search result for "SEO blog" on Yahoo! and the #2 result on Google. Rand Fishkin explains how SEO is like baking chocolate chip cookies.

2. Twitter Size Your Content
You can convey a lot of information in 20-30 words, which is about the equivalent of Twitter’s 140-character limit. Remember, Twitter is content, (consider VeryShortStory’s entries on Twitter). Accordingly "Twitter-size" your content.
  • Paragraphs: no more than 3 sentences per paragraph.

  • Sentences: Less than 10 words per sentence.

  • Words: Use shorter words where possible. (Notice I didn’t say “utilize” instead of “use”?)
Sounds tough, doesn’t it? Consider some of the following examples of Twitter-friendly sentiments that express strong, clear ideas in less than 140 characters:

  • I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country. #nathanhale 62 characters
  • You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs. #winstonchurchill 87 characters
  • Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever. #chiefjoseph 117 characters
  • Nuts! #generaltonymcauliffe 5 characters
Can you think of other good examples of Twitter-friendly but powerful quotes? Add them in the comments!

3. Include a reader benefit statement
What’s in it for the reader? Why should they keep reading or click through – let alone make a purchasing decision? The title of your blog, your web page, and your entire Twitter entry needs to give your audience a reason to break a sweat by clicking through.

Why did you click through to this article? Let me know in the comments.

Check out this advice from pro copywriter Joe Robson about the importance of AIDA – no, not the opera.

By making sure you’re incorporating these 3 simple steps into your content development process, you’re going to see increased site traffic and overall audience satisfaction.

Thanks to for the retweet symbol.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Castro 2.0

Are we there yet?

Former(?) Cuban President, Fidel Castro, emerged from apparent convalescence for an August 3, 2010 speech to Cuba's parliament. That, in and of itself is remarkable; however, things got even curiouser and curiouser as he seemed to be simultaneously environmentalist, anti-nuke, anti-war, anti-terrorism, pro-diplomacy, and, perhaps most-astonishingly, pro-wiki.

Wikileaks, any way.

Castro referenced the classified documents available to the world via wikilieaks regarding the U.S. war in Afghanistan. He assured his audience that U.S. intelligence agencies wouldn't able to "hurt a hair on the head" of Bradley Manning, identified as the leaked documents' key source.

Although there is a meandering quality to Castro's speech (which lacks a clear thesis, but not necessarily purpose), it is evident that he tried to convey genuine concern for the future of planet earth. That broader view belies, perhaps, a person hoping to affect change on the macro spectrum instead of using the macro to advance the micro of nationalism. Note this excerpt, liberally translated by yours truly and web translation.

For the first time, I address this message to President Barack Obama:

It is in your hands to offer humanity the only real opportunity for peace. Within your purview is the power to launch an apocalypse, but also the opportunity for peaceful resolution. Whether on the political right or left, American citizens will applaud your efforts, and they remain faultless in these dire events in any case.

This speech signals something -- for Cuba, for Earth. Not that Fidel Castro is going to shake things up for the American Empire, but that Castro is a barometer of just how much technology has changed society, and how society has changed technology, demanding openness, moving dialogues into public forums, and seeking an increase in the quality of ideas we exchange with one another.

It is a strange circle, the grizzled dictator of pro-Soviet Cuba, calling on the allegedly socialist Obama administration, to enact the change promised in those upstart speeches in 2008.

The world waits in the comment boxes for the response.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Transparency is a Two-Way Street

The United Arab Emirates wants to ban the BlackBerry. You know why?

Because it works too well.

Canada-based Research In Motion uses encryption (“AES” encryption, in fact – whatever that is) for all data traveling between your BlackBerry and the enterprise server. The only problem is that that foils snooping by certain curious emirates who may want a peeksie of what’s going on in your world.

Quid pro quo, isn’t it?

We certainly want to know what’s happening in the corridors of power, so why wouldn’t a government have an equal right to know where you’re going to have lunch, or who won your office fantasy football league?

The fundamental problem is that we have developed an “us-and-them” paradigm, where government is the Other, something that is separated from us and clearly interested only in keeping us under “its” jack boot of despotic control. In the “us-and-them” model, if a government wants to monitor our allegedly private communications, they are one step away from forcing us onto box cars headed to re-education camps.

If I say the occasional controversial thing in a casual phone call, I hope the DHS agents will consider it constructive criticism, and pass along my ideas to the appropriate agencies.

But when we want to see the goings-on in the smoky backrooms of Congress and governors’ mansions, that is simply well-informed citizenry. In a democracy, after all, should not the government work for us?

Of course, most of us were pretty comfortable when the Patriot Act passed in 2001 – with broad bipartisan support, by the way.

It’s all about context.

9/11 made us comfortable with a lot of actions that just a week before the twin towers fell, we never would have imagined.

From the spin angle, all the UAE has to say about encrypted BlackBerry messages is that they undermine the country’s ability to identify and eliminate terrorist threats. In fact, if Americans are uncomfortable with the UAE’s stance on privacy, they will be likewise uncomfortable with Saudi Arabia and India, who may follow suit to ban the BlackBerry.

What exactly do we own in terms of our communications, anyway? What’s so special about my emails or my phone calls that would cause me alarm when I learn that the Department of Homeland Security might be listening in?

I was raised to believe that sharing is caring, after all. I should be proud of the things I write in electronic missives. And if I say the occasional controversial thing in a casual phone call, I hope the DHS agents will consider it constructive criticism, and pass along my ideas to the appropriate agencies.

We could turn our entire communications system into the largest suggestion box in history.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Identifying the Real Problem Can Save a Lot of Time (and Sweat)

I begin this posting with a personal story. I played hookie from work yesterday afternoon to go on an impromptu bike adventure with my wife. Careful what you wish for, because we definitely wound up with an adventure.
Six miles from home on the Gateway Trail, my wife noticed my back tire was low, so I dutifully stopped to pump it up. Unfortunately, the tire pump did not release well, and, as I was tugging on it, the entire valve stem tore from the inner tube, releasing all the air – new and old. And me with no spare tube.

Did I mention six miles from home?

It wasn’t all bad. It was a nice day. We were together. But I felt a little stupid pushing my bike while other cyclists zipped by. My immediate dilemma was which direction to head. Try the six-mile hike home, or push on to this very vague notion I had that there was a bicycle store ahead of me – somewhere.

Feeling optimistic, we pushed forward. Two miles of avoiding the pedals scraping our shins later, I finally flagged down two cyclists and asked if my hopes of nearby bike shop were in vain. They assured me I was on the right path, and only a mile away. That raised our spirits, and we renewed our hike, watching the two cyclists gain momentum and disappear into the horizon.

But what really raised our spirits was when those two cyclists appeared again heading towards us.

“You know,” one of them said, “There’s a Target about six blocks from here.” And he pointed the way.

They understood my real situation: I needed a new inner tube. Yes, they were able to point me towards the bike store I had asked about, but they literally went out of their way to provide the solution that best fit our needs: a nearby store that sells inner tubes.

By identifying real problems for clients (and friends, family, and hapless strangers), we demonstrate a sort of super-empathy that satisfies the immediate need, and often with the least amount of resources. This requires a commendable level of creativity and commitment to helping others. It seems to me, incidentally, that this pairing of traits would make for one kick-ass sales force.

P.S., I had to buy a nine-dollar wrench in order to replace my flat, but it’s already safe in my back pack with the patch kit and another spare inner tube for the next time I hit the trail. I consider it a $9 memento of how, in spite of incessant bad news all around us, there are opportunities to be human in the highest sense.

Thank you, good Samaritan cyclists, whoever you are!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Steering the Bandwagon

One way we influencers influence others is by generating the illusion that there is a groundswell of support for an initiative, product, or service. This is known as the bandwagon, which calls to mind images of a raucous parade, appearing mysteriously but moving determinedly forward.

The core of this parade is a particularly loud float – the one supporting the weight of a be-tassled brass band.

The bandwagon can be rolled out within companies. A new service initiative, a new human resources strategy, a new accounting system. “Everyone’s on board, you should be on board, too!”

Where the bandwagon came from is less important than where they’re going.

Where are they going?

That’s the magic of the bandwagon method of garnering support. Throw a pro football player up there next to the band, and we’re hooked. We’ll follow that parade into the gaping jaws of hell itself.

Or at least into the grocery store, or the Gap, or Afghanistan, or healthcare reform.

Once the wheels begin rolling, the bandwagon becomes a collection of shiftless individuals who drive forward with the momentum – the most dynamic barnacles – under the misconception they are part of a common cause.

The truth is, the bandwagon is applied as the insidious invention of one or two masterminds (or marketing directors). Seldom are the captains of the bandwagon strategy actually on the bandwagon. They lurk in their foregone conclusions, rubbing their hands, waiting for the rubes with pockets full of money to roll in.

Hard questions are brushed aside, and if one resists the joyous cacophony of the group-think polka, then one quickly finds that the steel wheels of the band slow for no dissenters.
Perhaps the best way to counteract the bandwagon pandemic (band-demic?) is to get on board – and STEER. Join in the banter. Shout with the heady crowd and, by degrees, edge the bandwagon in the right direction.

If you know where the right direction lies, that is.

Consider it a polite highjacking.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Your Facebook Profile Pic Makes You Look Bad

At work today, I got a call from a coworker wondering who ran our company's Facebook page. She was concerned by one of our Facebook "fans" whose profile picture apparently was a scantily-clad Playboy model. My coworker thought we should kick out the fan for his potentially offensive profile picture.

The fan in question is not an employee of my company. If he were an employee, I could call him and let him know that the company is at this moment developing guidelines for how employees behave on social media sites – even when on their own time. He could take that under advisement and either change his profile pic or go to work for a hipper industry.

Frankly, I'm not sure why a young man with, shall we say, more artistic aspirations, would want to become a Facebook fan of an engineering company. But he is. And that is just how the web works.

I spoke with our social media administrator, and we agreed that the best course of action was no action, but the situation reminded me of a phone interview I had with professional speaker and coach, Jane Atkinson. I was talking to her about personal branding, and how a person's brand influenced their professional opportunities. The conversation turned to channels (like Facebook and LinkedIn) for marketing the "self brand". She navigated to my Facebook page as we spoke, and she saw my profile pic – a photo of a statue of three deer in a, shall we say, artistic pose.

I was deeply embarrassed. The personal brand article turned out great, but I instantly became aware of how my credibility was jeopardized by my admittedly juvenile sense of humor.

My internal debate has been that desire to live an unfettered life versus finding new opportunities, personally and professionally. Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt said it best with "with great freedom comes great responsibility" – or am I thinking of Ozzy Osbourne who wrote "I don't want to change the world/I don't want the world to change me"?

It's a new world, I guess. Love it or leave it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Transparency Wearing Thin?

The Obama Administration is missing an excellent tie-in to the health care debate around the issue of airport scanners.

Instead of just looking for weapons or explosives under our clothes, why not scan for cancer or osteoporosis? People would flock to the airport for regular check ups, freeing up hospital waiting rooms for good old fashioned gunshot victims.

Airlines could fill prescriptions right in flight. Along with the $5 headphones, passengers could purchase backless gowns, very comfortable, and extremely practical when dealing with more aggressive security procedures.

I recently heard someone say, without irony, that "there ought to be a law limiting big government."

It seems like we, the public, want our proverbial cake and we want to eat it, too.

It's as if technology has brought us to a golden age of interactive everything. Pushocracy (push button, remote control democracy) is just around the corner. We'll be able to vote on every line item of a budget bill while we drive to work. We will be the government, an iMob of virtual patriots.

Meanwhile we expect a high level of what has come to be known as "transparency" from our governments, our employers, our bankers, our celebrities, and thanks to web cams and Skyping, one another.

This idea of transparency not only seems to have been driven by technology, but it is currently embodied by the discussions about full body airport scanners that can see through our clothes. Now that is literally mandating transparency.

As technology has pushed everything into overdrive, our tolerance for waiting, for not knowing, for inaction has plummeted. We want it now. As long as we don't have to do anything.

This is the cake conundrum. I notice more and more that we expect to keep tabs on what "the man" is up to, sort of a quid pro quo for Big Brother government wanting to keep tabs on us via airport screening and citywide video cameras and marketing databases.

We show you ours, so let's see yours.

The problem is that what we see isn't necessarily of any significance. Even if it was significant, what we really do about it, anyway? Tweet?

The folks demanding transparency may inadvertently be fostering a larger bureaucratic monster who always keeps one hand waving at us while the other hand slices the throats of good ideas. By simply demanding "transparency", we are really demanding a peek at the inner workings of power. Just seeing the inner workings of power, however, doesn't transfer any power to us simply for having seen it, any more than watching a storm on radar will keep it from raining.

Yes, I know that the radar analogy could also be turned to suggest that by seeing the storm coming, we can prepare ourselves with umbrellas and rain boots, but that's not what the iMob wants. We want someone to keep it from raining, as infantile and illogical as that is, it is what we want. Our desire for transparency isn't motivated by any bold underpinning, that if we are discontent we would go so far as to do something about it.

Heavens, no.

We want a more passive relationship with our masters. Yes, we want to keep an eye on those rascals, but from a safe distance, generally measured by terabytes. We want to feel like we control them, because as long as they stay in the confines of our Blackberry and iPhone screens, they are diminutive and less threatening.

For my money, "transparency" is simply the new "shallow".