(Eagle eyed readers of the IJLA blog may spot that an earlier version of this article first appeared on here, last year.)
The Professional Copywriters' Network are featuring me in their spotlight this week, with an interview on my journey into freelance writing and editing, the high points of the job (as well as the bug bears!), what I do to jettison writer's block, and advice to writers who are just starting out.
In reaching out to customers or partners, it’s tempting to imagine that simply producing more – maximising the amount we say and how often we say it – will effectively demonstrate who we are. But just getting your brand out there, advertising, engaging with social media marketing, or churning out reports or white papers is not enough to ensure you are successfully connecting with your audience.
Reaching your customer base and clearly expressing your relevance, your core values or your unique selling points requires a clear understanding of that audience.
- What matters to them?
- What information or experience in your field do they already have?
- How much detail do they need?
- What are you offering?
- What is your call to action?
These questions are likely to be familiar to you – we’re all brands now, whether you are a commercial business with products or services to sell, a startup, a consultancy, advocacy organisation or social enterprise.
However, the next step may be tougher...
Your product or skill base may be the leanest, smartest, most effective on the market; your service may add significant value to your customer; your bid may be the most competitive – but if you can’t express that reality, you’re relying on your customers to make a big jump to close the gap.
The Hidden Logic of Success
The really good news is that being brilliant at anything is simply a matter of careful rehearsal. In Bounce, Matthew Syed debunks the talent myth, demonstrating that hours of purposeful practice builds our competence and expertise, until – seemingly effortlessly and innately – we are performing to the highest levels. When we see extraordinary prowess, in any field, "we are witnessing the end-product of a process measured in years… what we do not see is what we might call the hidden logic of success." Syed, Bounce (Fourth Estate 2011)
The famous 10,000 hours, coined by influential sports and business commentator Malcolm Gladwell, represents the amount of time we need to invest in a complex task to achieve mastery. Writing fluently and persuasively is such a skill – and given enough practice, anyone can become an expert communicator. After years of experience in restructuring, redrafting, and refining, a professional writer instinctively finds the right words, nuance, tone and pace to connect to and convince their audience, approaching each new project with the ability and speed of a specialist.
So that’s the good news. But if you’re already pouring your energy and creativity into your core business, where do you find those extra hours to develop your ability to communicate? Right now, you have information you need to get into the marketplace: perhaps a report to put out, web copy to update; an article, a white paper, a summary…
That's when you should consider adding the skills of a freelance copy writer into your team – someone who has already written countless hours of material for a diverse range of services and organisations. Someone who can help you find your voice and reach your audience. Today.
For more on how I can help you to communicate, influence and explain, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
You may have seen this morning that both the Today programme and the BBC News front page, along with many print papers, ran headline pieces on an attempted murder trial. And you could be forgiven for wondering why – because it wasn't real...
The defendant, the victim, and all of the witnesses were characters from The Archers – that national treasure, the long running radio soap airing six days a week, which usually focuses on nothing more stirring than the Flower & Produce Show, milk prices and poaching ethics.
“An everyday story of country folk” may not sound exactly riveting, and you certainly may not expect its fictional events to hit national headlines – but for the last year this 13 minute long nightly radio drama has built a compelling domestic abuse narrative around two central characters. Yesterday culminated in a unique one hour special, where jurors deliberated over an attempted murder charge against Helen Titchener, the terrorised wife.
But more dramatic than the triumphant Not Guilty verdict – greeted with euphoria by Archers fans on Twitter, where #FreeHelen has been trending for months – is the surprising action it has provoked beyond the fictional world of Ambridge.
In February this year, an Archers fan set up a Just Giving page for the ‘real life Helens’, to help listeners donate to the domestic violence charity Refuge. After seven months, the page has raised almost £160,000. That’s a phenomenal amount of money, largely given in increments of £10 and £20, simply as a response to a story.
No one associated with the radio drama has ever asked for a donation. Not once in the entire storyline has mention been made of Refuge, or their reliance on charitable giving to survive. Helen doesn’t even access this form of support to escape her abuser.
Simply put: the insight, compassion and outrage elicited by this story has triggered a spontaneous response from the show’s listeners, to collaboratively provide the best help they can. Nobody thinks Helen Titchener is real, but they are very clear that she represents a real experience for many.
Stories captivate us. We live out the emotions and ideas of the characters. We imagine ourselves in the same situations. We wonder how we could help. We want to act.
If you want to go beyond simple awareness from your audience, tell them a story – and watch them respond.
“If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter”
This famous proverb, variously attributed to Mark Twain, Pascal and Churchill, expresses a truth well understood by the summary writer: producing a short piece of text which clearly encapsulates complex or lengthy ideas takes a great deal of expertise and careful planning.
Before you write, begin with a list of questions...
How informed are your readers?
How much technical jargon needs explanation?
How much time do they have?
How many other similar reports will they read?
1. Who is your audience?
Think about the length and depth of the report. You may be looking for a one-page preface: some teaser statements, a few bullet points and a couple of tantalizing quotes, pulling in your reader so that they engage with the fuller piece. Another report may require more substance, with clear headings, greater detail, perhaps key figures or statistics.
Are you selling an idea?
Are you posing a complex theoretical question?
Are there multiple aspects to your argument?
Is there a call to action?
2. What is the tone of your report?
In a strong summary, the reader can easily identify key themes and implications. Aim to match the frequency of the longer piece: energetic or considered, ambitious or reserved. A report delivering a positive finding should have a positive summary; one containing challenges and future action needs a summary that’s enquiring, active and compelling. Don’t add your own synthesis – you’re aiming for perfect representation, not a mini-editorial of the original article.
What’s a proportionate level of detail to include?
Are you obscuring the USP by including too much background?
Have you understood the most important aspects of the proposal?
How can you articulate these key points simply?
3. What’s the big idea?
It’s crucial that you know what you’re writing about – yes, that sounds obvious, but it’s tempting to assume that creating a brief summary only requires a passing grasp of the content. In fact, to clarify and exemplify material requires you to thoroughly understand the big picture, and have a robust, working familiarity with the detail. Representing a report in micro-form means first identifying its proportions and architecture: what collapses if you move this or that supporting structure of the argument.
How many pages do you have?
What are the style / formatting guidelines?
Can you include key quotes from the report?
Is your structure clear and easy to navigate?
Have you created a good snapshot of the wider image?
4. How do I look?
There are various ways to present a summary; following the general structure of the main report is the obvious starting point, but avoid slavishly adhering to it subtitle-by-subtitle. You’re being asked to process complex ideas and lengthy arguments, and deliver them to the reader in an engaging and digestible way – not write up a secondary school science experiment (Hypothesis / Method / Results / Conclusion).
Using bullet points for key ideas and implications, and asking questions are more good ways to highlight important elements of the report, and draw the reader into the full piece.
Finally: the golden rule for summaries is to imagine the reader will never read the full report, but just what you’ve written here.
Make sure it’s exactly what they need to know.
"I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done."
Susan Orlean, journalist, author and staff writer for The New Yorker
We all do it. Industry leaders down to undergraduate students; creatives, executives, technicians and salespeople. You may even be doing it right now.
When faced with a big project, a lengthy report to read, a complex client conversation… we put it off. No matter how many helpful screening systems we employ (the Freedom app, for example, can disable all of your social media tools for a specified time), it’s human nature to find distractions amidst the call of focused work.
So is procrastination always the thief of time? When the working world first embraced the internet, its perceived impact on employee productivity was overwhelmingly negative. Facebook and other social networking sites were blocked as matter of course, and using your computer for personal chores within working hours was a covert practice at best, and potentially a sackable offence.
As the Internet Century has moved on, so too has our understanding of what worker efficiency looks like, at least in the world of the smart creative. Flexible hours and and the ‘always-on’ reality of working life has changed how we see the division of work and home, now far more integrated than before.
But time-wasting is still time-wasting, right? Not necessarily. Daniel Levitin writes in The Organized Mind about the switch our brains make between the ‘central executive’ — the fully focused prefrontal cortex which is actively engaged in a task — and the daydreaming state when our attention wanders.
Our desire for productivity isn’t always best served by plunging into work. If we confront that complex task head on — what Adam Grant refers to in his recent TED talk as pre-crastination — we miss the opportunities that arise when our brains wander in a contemplative state.
"procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps."
Allowing yourself time to switch between focused attention and day dreaming (and yes, that includes going completely off topic: YouTube surfing, inbox clearing, Words With Friends, a run or walk…*), you can make the difference between pinging an instant comeback to a problematic email, or designing a thoughtful and constructive response; getting your report in on time, or creating something really worthwhile.
Of course if you’ve allowed time to watched the entire season five of Game Of Thrones, eaten your own body weight in pretzels, and run out of tweets — and you’re still struggling to get the words on a page — it may be time to call in some professional help.
* For some truly inspirational work-deferment, watch another procrastination connoisseur…
In the age of information, how do we choose to communicate? The answer is… in the same way as we have for thousands of years. Humans tell each other stories. The medium we choose may be different: a tweet, blog, email or text – but mankind has always warned, taught and understood themselves through narrative.
In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future the business writer Daniel Pink explains that the critical skills of the 21st century are those of story tellers: “a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers”. To stand out in a crowded market, you must make an emotional connection with your audience.
Urban myths, cyberspace anecdotes, watercooler gossip: according to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, social conversation makes up well over half of all human discussion in public places. The explosion of social media in the last ten years is in fact merely representative of what has been happening via word of mouth since humans first spoke at all.
Over the last few days the international community marked first World Storytelling Day, and then World Poetry Day. We celebrate these forms of communication because they are instinctive to us – they create the capacity to remember and to reflect.
Consider the last two or three stories you heard – read to your child at bedtime perhaps, or watched on television? A fairy tale warning of ravenous wolves in the woods; a Scandinavian crime thriller. A story captivates us where simple facts fail. We are gripped by another’s experience, and just as the wedding guest listening to the ancient mariner, we cannot choose but hear.
And there’s a story in everything. Forget the conventional wisdom telling us a news reporter may cover a political piece, or economics, and at the end of the show you’ll have a ‘human interest story’. Was there really any other kind?
So when you next seek to convey technical information to your customers, to share an update on a breakthrough, to celebrate a new product – do it the intuitive way. Tell them a story.