How (and why) to write while furious

How can I write about marketing communications topics when I’m shaking with anger and shame about the political situation in this country? Joe Hage helps me figure things out.

I haven’t been blogging much. How can I write about marketing communications topics when I’m shaking with anger and shame about the political situation in this country?

But marketing communications guru Joe Hage has kept going. He’s been using a weekly email to communicate to his readership (medical device marketers). On Wednesday morning, Joe lowered the boom.

His blunt and courageous email begins:

“I’m angry. I hate him so much. You know who I’m talking about.”

Joe goes on to talk about the flood of information we face every day from highly curated news and marketing streams. We feel as though we’re in a deluge of information that’s deep and fast-running — but it turns out that it’s also deceptively narrow.

As Joe points out, many of us (unless we listen extensively to National Public Radio), have never read or heard about the civil war raging in Nicaragua. Joe didn’t know much about that war, either, until his video editor, who lives in a Nicaraguan city, witnessed a march of soldiers in the street outside her house. They left the dead body of a child in the street as a warning to anyone who might consider opposing them or aiding the opposition.

What does war in Nicaragua mean for someone like me — or you — whose business is all about trying to communicate to readers, donors, or customers? Joe tells his medical device industry colleagues:

“If a civil war in Central America doesn’t even hit our radar, can you imagine how many messages the average citizen is getting per day?”

“Your messaging is not competing with other medical device videos, images, and words. You are competing with every possible stimulus out there.”

In a communications environment like this, Joe asks, “what hope do any of us have in breaking through?”

His answer is that by writing as a real person, he is breaking through. He is engaging. His thousands of readers did read him yesterday morning (even if some of them were hitting “unsubscribe” and grabbing for their blood pressure medication).

My take-away from Joe’s out-of-the-box email? There are a lot of ways to engage people and get them to pay attention.

One of them is to threaten them (dropping dead bodies in the street, for example). Another is to inundate them with the same message, over and over again, drowning out fact and complexity with emotion and oversimplification (our news and marketing feeds). And, yes, a third way is for communicators to be real in their communications. Genuine, heartfelt communication stands out because so few of us do it, or hear it, in our professional roles.

It’s sad that being real, and honest, and thoughtful is “just not done” in the field of business communication. We have tens of thousands of well-dressed, well-educated people marching each day into beautifully decorated, air-conditioned workplaces, attending meetings about product marketing, advertising, and communications strategy, sitting down at their expensive keyboards to devise “messaging” — while inside most of them are all thinking about what’s real: That we live in a country that snatches immigrants out of their homes, separates children from immigrant parents, and puts immigrant families in prisons. Indefinitely.

Now let’s take a look at that PowerPoint, shall we?

(For more information on who Immigration and Customs Enforcement is arresting, why, and how, see this document from the Immigrant Defense Project.)


Presentation tips: Slides are free!

Photo of presenter with slidesI’ve been to three conferences in as many weeks, and all three of them included presentations that crammed way too much information, in teeny tiny type, onto a series of unreadable slides. I was fascinated — in a watching-the-car-go-off-the-bridge kind of way. These presenters were not newbies. They were people who give dozens of talks a year.

Ironically, some of the most riveting presentations at the conferences had just a few slides. A couple had no slides whatsoever. You could feel the room perk up as the presenter, instead of fumbling with the remote control device or peering at the screen, looked directly at the audience and spoke passionately about their topic.

This sent me back to my own slide decks to see where I fall in this continuum.

How much is too much?

How do we know when our slides have fallen prey to clutter? Alarms should go off when:

  • You shrunk bullet points to a type size smaller than 24 points.
  • You stuffed more than 6 bullet points on a slide.
  • You squished two or more charts onto a slide. (Need to contrast trends? Combine them in one chart.)
  • You’re using a slide presentation format to create text-heavy handouts for people who are not attending your talk. (Handouts are a separate, and very different, document; see Resource #4, below.)

These criteria are pretty generous. Most designers and readability experts would advise even fewer sentences, fewer bullet points, fewer words, and larger typefaces.

2 ways to make your slides better, fast

Most of us want to use at least a few slides in our presentations. How can we make them informative rather than painful? Here are some bare bones strategies for taking cluttered, wordy slides and turning them into clear, concise images that support your talk:

  1. Cut to the chase. Put the most important point — a key question, or a conclusion  — on the slide. Move everything else to your speaking notes. If the takeaway is that when more sharks swim in the pool, more people get bitten, put a simple graph showing that trend on the slide. Caption it “More sharks = more bites.” With that slide on the screen, you can talk about the supporting details (the size of the pool, how they chose the swimmers, and how this leads into your next point/slide).
  2. One thing at a time. There is no economic advantage to squeezing several points or multiple charts onto one slide. Slides are free, and you can click through them at any rate you want. Instead of spending six minutes talking while people in the audience try to decipher the fine print on your crowded slide, split the information into two or three readable slides and spend two or three minutes talking about each.

More information about presentation design

At this point, you’re either arguing with me and insisting that you absolutely need to put 100 words on each slide or you’re ready to give your next audience a break. If you’d like to aim for more readable slides (and enjoyable presentations), I’ll close with some great resources from people who know far more about this that I do:

  1. Ten Secrets for Using PowerPoint More Effectively – a professional presentation designer’s tips
  2. Talks: Fewer Words, More Understanding — an explanation of how slides can distract rather than inform an audience
  3. How Many Words Should Your PowerPoint Slides Contain? — some interesting observations about making slides for certain types of material and audiences.
  4. Slide Design Tips: Presentation Vs. Handout Slides — valuable information for producing handouts for both print and electronic distribution.


A shout-out to LinkedIn — and my colleagues

Free, organic marketing — that takes time. But it has at least one advantage: if you build and nurture a good LinkedIn network, the leads that come from it are very well qualified.

social networks unite the world

Last week I completely forgot the 10th anniversary of my business.

But LinkedIn remembered. They noted it in my colleagues’ newsfeed.

So throughout the week I was pinged with a few a dozen “Congratulations!” messages from friends from around the world. Many of these folks I’ve talked with in recent months, but some — well, one was a madly creative, rather intimidating woman I knew 10 years ago at Apple. We both left at the same time and went off to make our ways in the world. She remembered me? Wow.

I answered each of the messages, using the opportunity to catch up, and came away from the experience pretty impressed with LinkedIn.

I was even more impressed a few days later when the CEO of a small software company contacted me to do a project, mentioning that a friend (one of the folks who’d congratulated me on LinkedIn) had recommended my work. Today I’m starting on a fascinating new web-writing project. I’m pretty sure that the LinkedIn anniversary message reminded that colleague about my work, and led him to recommend me.

Clients often ask me what social media activities will get them business immediately. The answer? Buy Google ads. Free, organic marketing — that takes time. But it has at least one advantage: if you build and nurture a good LinkedIn network, the leads that come from it are very well qualified.





Social Media for PR (2016 edition)

Social Media 2016It was my pleasure tonight to speak to Lee Schoentrup’s University of Washington PR Certificate class about social media. This is the sixth or seventh [correction: ninth] year I’ve given the social media briefing, and it’s a presentation that has to be rewritten top to bottom each time.

Last year I talked about interactive social media — “Dancing with Your Audience” was the title. This year I didn’t feel as optimistic about the field. I titled the latest version of the presentation “How to Stand Out in a Busy World.” My feeling is that social media has maxed out audience bandwidth; people are experiencing more than enough social media interaction. Now social media professionals face a battle for attention, a battle that will be won by people and organizations delivering the best (most valuable or most entertaining) content and the best user experiences.

Here, for Lee’s class and anyone else interested, is the presentation SME – UW – 2016 in PDF form.

I challenged the class to invest in training that will enable them to produce podcasts, webinars, and video content for social media. I realize that I need to take my own challenge, so I’m committing to learn how record that Keynote presentation with an audio voiceover!

Mobile-friendly web design: Look before you leap into the future

Your new mobile-friendly website may unexpectedly shut out your customers or employees who use older desktop or laptop computers. Here’s why.

computer problemI do a lot of work updating the content of business websites. In the past year, much of that work has been driven by the shift to mobile-friendly web designs — designs that offer interactive content for touchscreen phones and tablets, along with content for traditional desktop machines or laptops that use mice or trackpads. To serve up content in this manner, the website is coded in two different versions. Small-screen devices get the mobile version of the site and large-screen computers get the desktop/laptop version (which often appears as a long scrollable page).

At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

This recent post from the agency Extractable talks about an unexpected disconnect one of their clients experienced when the client rolled out a new mobile-friendly web design. It worked well for the company’s users, but not for the company’s own employees. Some investigation revealed why. The users had new phones and tablets but the company’s own desktop computers were so outdated (with low-resolution screens) that those computers were perceived by the website code as small-screen devices and were thus shown the wrong version of the website.

The company’s employees were unable to see or access the main menu required to log in to user accounts and assist customers.

This is an unexpected illustration of science fiction novelist William Gibson’s observation that “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

In this case, it was the company that had out-of-date computers. But I suspect this will also be a significant issue for business-to-business companies whose commercial customers are using  outdated computer systems. If customers can’t access the log-in menus, they won’t be able to access their accounts to place orders.

Bottom line: Before installing a major update to make your website trendy and mobile friendly, it might be worth checking first with two or three of your major customers to find out what technologies they are using to access your website for ordering, customer service, etc. Or, test the new system with those major customers so any necessary changes can be made in the code at your end. When it comes to business websites, there’s little point in leaping into the future until your customers and employees can go there with you.

Effective web content: Rethinking your About page

About Us pageI’m working with three clients on small-business websites and we’re getting hung up on the About pages.

So I went off and did some research on About pages (specifically for small-business websites). I found several types, each with their own benefits and limitations, and thought the information worth sharing:

  1. The “all facts” page. There’s nothing wrong with an About page that is, essentially, your resume. Facts make prospective clients and partners feel comfortable; facts (about where you went to school, where you worked, your skills, your past projects, a bit about why you do what you do) provide ways to connect your world with their worlds. The danger of an “all facts” page is its dryness. An about page that’s too close to a resume risks making your business look like something you’re doing while hunting for a “real job.” If you use an “all facts” format, try pruning the information to emphasize information that relates specifically to your business.
  2. The “too much information” page. I’m seeing a lot of About pages that make me feel as though I’m trapped at a cocktail party with an enthusiastic nut case. When people go on at length about how passionate, ethical, environmentally aware, and socially conscious they are, I get nervous. In part, it’s because they could be lying through their teeth. I’d rather look at their portfolio and their client list and their testimonials and see that these passions and commitments are evidenced in their work and in the clients and partners they choose to work with. The “too much information” page is often characterized by a regrettable photo of the business owner doing something recreational rather than professional — or, worse, a studio portrait that looks more like a brooding, self-involved artist than a business person.
  3. The “connections and keywords” page. This is a version of the “all facts” page that emphasizes not projects and experience but the business owners’  connections to clients, partners, educational programs, and professional organizations. It reflects the influence of LinkedIn, which uses a format that identifies you by these connections. This is a great framework to which you can add a bit of personality. Again, as with the facts page, you’d do well to give greater emphasis to those connections that have something to do with your business.
  4. The “short and sweet” page. These can be some of the best About pages. Given that most people will spend only a second or two looking at an About page, keeping it short (three sentences, max) vastly increases the chances that a prospective customer will actually read what you have to say about your business. If you say something that is genuine and moderately engaging, you’ll have achieved a huge win. Of course, there are a few About pages that try so hard to be cryptic, provocative, and clever with their brevity that they leave visitors scratching their heads.
  5. The “story” page. Storytelling was all the rage in online communication two or three years ago. I’m finding that, like many online communications fads, storytelling is rapidly losing its patina. That’s because so many people have abused it. They’re abusing it by telling stories that are inappropriate, boring, or pure fantasy. If you are determined to use the About page for your business website to tell your story, make sure there is a real story to tell. It should have information about who did what, when, where, and why. And make sure the story is about the business at least as much as it is about you. Most importantly, focus on what you’ve done, not on what you intend to do. You want to sound like a solid business person, not a dreamer.

Here’s are some observations by marketing communications experts on effective About pages and why business owners have such difficulty writing them:

What About…Me?

So…what type of “About” page did I use for WriterWay?

#3, the “connections and keywords” page.

Most of my business comes through referrals. I find that nearly every prospect who contacts me makes a reference to some client or organization they saw mentioned in the top third of my About page. We then go on to discuss that common connection.

People never mention any of the weirder stuff I have near the end of my About page, so my guess is that they aren’t reading it — I’ve got too much stuff on the page. (See “short and sweet,” above.)

Dancing with your audience — thoughts on social media

Social media in 2015 has moved beyond story telling to become an interactive public performance with a variety of audiences.

Last night I spoke about social media to the folks in the PR Certificate Program at the University of Washington. This is the 7th year I’ve done a presentation for them, and it never fails to astonish me how much the field of social media changes from year to year.

(This year’s presentation: Dancing with your Audience – UW – 2015)

The options for social media have become so complex, the tools for managing a social media program so sophisticated, and the demands on communicators so great, that it’s difficult to cover it all.

picture of dancers

From talking with the students, many of whom are already working the field, I came away with the impression that organizations are overwhelmed. While companies realize that it’s now essential to have a social media plan and a social media program, they are vastly underestimating the resources required to execute even a basic social media program. (They are also overestimating what social media programs can accomplish, often regarding them as a magic solution to problems rooted in inadequate branding or poor customer service — but that’s another story.)

Organizations that are doing a good basic job of communication (branding, publications, website, etc.) are well positioned to undertake social media work. But if they don’t allocate the resources required to listen as well as talk, they’re headed for big trouble. Companies that fail to monitor and follow up not just on comments but on mentions are both losing opportunities and risking possible disaster. It used to be enough to moderate and answer comments on blogs. Today follow up involves tracking your company, your products, your field, your partners, and your competitors on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, Ello, Google+ and on and on and on.

It’s hard to imagine an effective social media program being administered by fewer than two full-time employees; large organizations that work directly with the public need correspondingly large teams.

I urged the students, some of whom are tasked with designing and managing social media programs, to ruthlessly focus their efforts on key audiences, suitable platforms, easy-to-use tools (including video), and significant messages.

And to think: seven years ago it was all about blogging and keywords.

Before you fall in love with your business card

Before you fall in love with your business card — is it readable by an OCR scanner? High-drama design can often result in low impact.

business cardsBefore you commit to a mad, passionate affair with your business card’s design, ask yourself: Is this readable by an OCR scanner?

OCR (optical character recognition) software now comes bundled with most home-office scanners. It’s no longer something for the sales person who goes to trade shows and comes back with 500 business cards. It’s for just about anyone who’s tired of the piles of business cards cluttering their desks.

I just popped a dozen business cards into my ScanSnap S1500M and was astonished at the results. They scanned in seconds, and in Cardiris software half of the cards transferred most of their data into the correct fields for a vCard that could be exported with one click into my Contacts application.

The other half of the cards yielded up no data at all. Zip. Nada. They might as well have been blank.


Because they had white type on a dark (or highly patterned) “artsy” background. (Note: It’s not just the Cardiris software; people report this with other common business-card scanning applications.)

The Dark Side of Design

So, do you want to be the graphic designer, building contractor, or editor whose email address and phone number are now in my database? Or do you want to be the one whose unreadable card I just dropped into my recycle bin?

In the world of business communications, high drama can easily result in low impact.


Stories. They’re what people remember

Stories are powerful. Stories are what people remember. So why don’t more organizations harness the power of their stories?

Father and daughter story
There’s a story here.

How quickly the news — of Robin Williams’ death, of the police brutality in Ferguson — turns into stories.

Give us a one-sentence headline, and almost immediately we find ourselves appending a story. A story about the state police official who stepped in to march with the protestors. A story about Williams stopping by a young comedian’s dressing room to give an astonishing private performance.

As Jonathan Gottschall explains, stories are powerful. Stories are what people remember.

Yet let marketing and development professionals sit down to their desks in a corporate setting, and what happens when they start to write? Well, they churn out dull grey platitudes and pompous marketing cliches. They purr over features, benefits, and selling points.

They write:

“HealthFix’s new consulting nurse service has won the best ratings in the region! Just one call puts you in touch with a degreed medical professional who can help you get the after-hours care you need. That’s peace of mind.” [add stock photo of beaming nurse with headset]

instead of:

“Jim Wilson’s story: ‘My wife was late getting home from work, I was trying to remember if we had guests coming, and then there was a scream from the kids playing soccer in the back yard. Had my daughter broken her ankle or was it just a sprain? I called the HealthFix consulting nurse service and within two minutes we knew just what to do.'” [add actual photo of Jim and his daughter]

What’s stopping you from reaching out to the people your organization serves and asking to use their stories?

Get in touch if you’d like to find out more about what it takes to put stories — your own stories — to work for your organization.

What’s next in website design? Scroll down to see

Suddenly, they’re everywhere. Websites with big, bold home pages. Big headlines. Big, colorful backgrounds that evoke posters. No sidebars, ever. Want more information? Start scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

Suddenly, they’re everywhere.

Websites with big, bold home pages. Big headlines. Big, colorful backgrounds that evoke posters. No sidebars, ever. Want more information? Start scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

Take a look at Nordic Rubyscrolling website. And Grovemade.

This isn’t news to designers. But it may be news to lots of folks in Marketing and Communications who are working with the current industry standard template — a top nav; a photo slideshow; three “boxes” filled with teaser information linking to pages deeper in the site; and secondary pages with complex sidebars.

What’s driving the change

Blame the trend toward scrolling sites on mobile devices and tablets (and their touch screens). By late 2013, 28 percent of website visits were from mobile devices (phones and tablets) and that percentage was growing at a phenomenal rate. For businesses whose visitors are in demographics that rely on phones and tablets, the percentage is likely far larger. For the mobile visitor, clicking little text links on a touchscreen is painful; scrolling, a breeze

What’s gained, what’s lost

My experience with mobile-friendly websites that rely on scrolling is that the process of getting information from them is less hierarchical and more immersive. I get a sense of the personality of the organization. If I need to click to get to a secondary page, the link is a large, bold button.

That said, I miss the hierarchy. Without a detailed site map or drop-down navigation, it’s easy to feel that you’re lost and overwhelmed.

Perhaps that’s why some of the most appealing scrolling sites are ones that represent simple, discreet events (such as a conference).

Looking ahead

Thinking about migrating your organization to a scrolling website design? These 12 scrolling sites featured on provide plenty of inspiration. Be sure to check out the Unfold site — it’s a continuous loop!