Happy New Year, dear Readers!
Best wishes for a healthy, joyous 2012. May you find success with all your writing and communications goals this year!
“So much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it.”
~ “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”
Sometimes I feel like William of Baskerville at the end of the film version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, tragically clutching a library’s worth of books as they slip through his fingers, unread. To paraphrase that wonderful line from “Willy Wonka”: So many books and so little time.
And that is why, after talking with friends and checking out blogs by readers who’ve gone before me, I’m ready to undertake a reading challenge in the new year.
The first reading challenge I’d heard about was 52 Books in 52 Weeks, which immediately seems so daunting as to make me want to not even start. I checked with a friend, who said she’d altered the challenge to 50 Books in a Year, although she also admitted to reading slim volumes and lots of genre (which tends to be shorter or divided into serials), and to avoiding making herself feel guilty if one week’s reading seeps into the following week.
“I just read a shorter book that week,” she reports. But, she keeps going – the more important part of the deal.
I’ve seen challenges that focus on genres – from science fiction to YA – though I’m guessing this is not the year to tackle the Victorians and/or Russians, and that seems a bit of a shame to deliberately exclude something because it’s long.
I just slogged through Haruki Murakami’s 925-page epic 1Q84 and, while I found it not terribly interesting or well-written, I kept going till the end. I feel bad when I give up on a novel. I always hope there’s something awaiting me in a later chapter, and I prefer not to pass judgment on something I haven’t experienced whole.
As with last year, I also want the opportunity to explore the profession of communications and the practices of social media and audience engagement through reading. There must be room for business books as well as novels.
So, what to do? Perhaps, for me, the practical approach is to set a goal of one book a week for two weeks out of every month, with the other two weeks dedicated to the completion of a longer work or perhaps a long book and a play or graphic novel.
As you can tell, I’m still rolling the possibilities around my brain, and would love to hear if you’ve set yourself reading challenges and how you managed them, especially across long periods of time. How did you choose your reading selections? What did you learn about yourself? What did you discover about the joys (or tribulations) of reading and reading challenges?
Thank you for any guidance you can share with me in the Comments!
I read a lot of books this year, and I still couldn’t put together a Top 100 list. Not everything deserves to be “tops” and everyone has their own taste, which, I hope, will continue to translate to a long and healthy life for the publishing industry.
I’ve shared thoughts with you on various books I encountered this year, but here’s a very quick guide to the few chosen ones I’ve been sharing with friends, buying as gifts and recommending to colleagues.
Top 3 Fiction Books of 2011
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Canadian writer Patrick deWitt made it to the 2011 Man Booker Prize short list. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending ultimately received this year’s honor, nevertheless deWitt’s is my favorite novel of the year.
I’m not usually one for Westerns, but deWitt, with his tight, tense writing style, short chapters, and devilish narrator, Eli Sisters, weaves the perfect tall tale – one slightly darker in tone than even Twain might venture. If the films of the Coen brothers delight you, you’ll adore this.
Perhaps it is their dumb luck or some messed up alchemy that turns every fortune to ash or Eli’s tender spot for his one-eyed horse, Tub, but despite their villainy, the Sisters brothers, make for compelling protagonists in a California overrun with Gold Rush greed.
Nothing Happened and Then it Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction by Jake Silverstein
From the title, you might assume this snuck into the wrong category. It shares the culturally embedded narratives of the best literary nonfiction, but sit with the book for a chapter or two, and it’ll start to feel like a yarn spun round a campfire.
Silverstein sets off for remote west Texas to learn how to become a reporter, visions of The New Yorker dancing in his head. What happens next is a mash-up of fact and fiction: hunting for the bones of Ambrose Bierce, trying to win the Poet of the Year crown in Reno, searching for pirate treasure, missing in its entirety a 2,000-mile road race across Mexico that he wanted to write a story about, and a painful incident resulting from bad Internet research where he has to admit to a source he’s been shadowing for five days that there will be no story.
Set against the desert Southwest, the line between fiction and truth blurs, Silverstein writes. “In the unshaded sun, thoughts twist like timbers, turning from memory to fantasy to silence…the beauty is pitiless and unusual, and the hard dark mountains furnish no refuge, and the effect of prolonged exposure is often to leave you wondering what is real.”
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Obviously, Catch-22 wasn’t written in 2011, and it was a toss-up between this and The Phantom Tollbooth, both justly enjoying 50th anniversary celebrations and reissues this year.
The anniversary edition includes an introduction by Christopher Buckley and essays by Heller, Studs Terkel, Anthony Burgess, Norman Mailer, and Christopher Hitchens, among others. Heller’s essay takes you through the creation of the novel and its early years of anonymity, long before the phrase “Catch-22” became an official part of the English language, not that it was ever official to begin with:
“Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.”
It’s interesting how great books inform the different periods of your life. I’d read the book one summer when I was still in high school, then found it assigned by a kind, but overly imaginative English teacher the following year. At the time, Heller’s writing about World War II bombing missions seemed perfectly in tune with the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate malaise of the ‘70s. Today, I’d be hard-pressed to say it doesn’t remind me of certain aspects of the corporate world.
That a book can handle so many references, and have different meanings for the diverse audiences and generations who embrace it, makes it one worth re-reading, if only to remember what the fuss was all about in the first place and to have as much fun with the language as Heller clearly did when he wrote it.
Top 3 Nonfiction Books of 2011
The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose
Rose found inspiration for this book from the subjects he wrote about as contributing editor at Wired. Rose’s narrative is spellbinding, as are the examples he uses to develop his thesis. From film and music promotion to the gaming industry, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way. Thrilling to find a read like this.
Rose has tapped in to the key element that makes social media, gaming and new kinds of storytelling so powerful:
“People don’t passively ingest a marketing message, or any type of message,” he observes. “They greet it with an emotional response, usually unconscious [I think he means subconscious], that can vary wildly depending on their own experiences and predispositions. They don’t just imbibe a story; they imbue it with meaning. Which means that perceptions of a brand aren’t simply created by marketers; they’re ‘co-created,’ in the words of Gerald Zaltman of Harvard Business School, by marketers and consumers together…If individuals in the audience ‘co-create’ a story in some sort of give-and-take with the storyteller, then the whole notion of authorial control starts to get fuzzy. The author starts the story; the audience completes it. The author creates the characters and the situation they find themselves in; the audience responds and makes it their own.”
Inspiration in book form for anyone charged with designing social media, PR, advertising or internal communications strategies and programs. Makes a great Christmas gift for that cranky old uncle who still refers to Twitter as “Tweeter.”
Measure What Matters: Online Tools for Understanding Customers, Social Media, Engagement, and Key Relationships by Katie Delahaye Paine
When engagement pundits are still proclaiming in 2011 that social media can’t be measured, it’s nice to know Ms. Paine is out there, championing business intelligence. I’m hoping 2012 will be the year of social media measurement.
One way to bring measurement into your work is to read this smart book and follow Paine on her website and blog. Paine takes the mystery and fear out of measurement and supports the use of metrics not to punish poorly performing programs, but to “identify strengths and weaknesses and allocate resources more intelligently.”
What more could you ask for? The book helps you make the case for measurement at your company, choose the right tools, and understand how to target measurement to different stakeholder audiences.
Problogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income by Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett
I had the opportunity to hear Rowse speak at 2011 BlogWorld, and he’s got such a fascinating backstory, I wanted to learn more. Ignore the daunting subtitle and mine this book for astute advice on setting up a blog, creating content and community, promotion, and helpful and easy-to-follow technical solutions. Valuable for anyone – individual, team or corporate bloggers – who wants to develop an engaged interactive community around specific topics.
No problem, right?
You’re a writer – you’ve got writing this award entry sussed.
It’s open season for many major awards programs – the Silver and Bronze Anvils, Gold Quills, Bulldogs, and EX awards spring immediately to mind – and, if your office tends to get quiet or even go dark around the holiday season, this is the perfect time to start planning your entry and organizing supporting materials.
This February, along with dozens of my fellow pros across the United States and around the world, I’ll be judging the writing category for one of the professional communications organizations.
Judges volunteer their weekends, read each carefully compiled entry from cover to cover, make their assessment, then work with another judge who’s read through the same entry to ensure fair and objective scoring. If we don’t finish on the first weekend, we spend as many weekends as it takes.
Here are three things you might want to know about last year’s writing category (respecting, of course, the confidential nature of submissions and the judging process; all examples are composites):
What Does this Mean for You?
It’s worth the effort to submit good work
View those awards websites, and you’ll often see a photo of entries piled from floor to ceiling. This was not the case for us last year, and we were judging all English-language submissions (U.S., U.K., Canada, and India); it took a single Saturday, and a few entries were the only examples in their category.
Don’t assume your work will be buried by the competition. You can only win an award if you’ve entered and, in busy years, it’s worth noting that your competition may be too swamped to invest the time.
Being the only entry in a category doesn’t guarantee an award, though. Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’ve got all the supporting materials your entry needs to make it awardable. My post, “Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work,” will get you prepped for this.
Take the time to complete every question on your entry (and never assume judges won’t spot what’s missing)
This is crucial because you’ll lose points for every unanswered question. The strategy and objectives you declare at the top of your entry must be backed up in the measurement section. You need to prove you achieved your strategy, and your objectives must be measurable. I discuss this in detail in the post, “Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season.” (This is a very long post; it guides you through the most important questions on an entry form with advice for writing a complete and compelling entry.)
Sometimes writers (not you, of course!) try to write their way around missing information and metrics. Trust me, we judges spot this every time. For one thing, measurement generally shows up numerically, while fudging an answer takes the form of words with lots of adverbs and adjectives thrown in.
In the day-to-day churn of producing content for websites, intranets, executive presentations, newsletters, press packets, and social media, we all run into cases where we’ve skimped on the up-front creation of strategy. Having a written strategy for your communications can pay you back, though, when it comes to measuring and proving the success of your program. And this is what you need to win awards.
Likewise, measurement for vehicles, such as internal newsletters, often amounts to intranet metrics and what’s in the Comments section. “Counting just adds things up and gets a total,” as Katie Delahaye Paine notes in Measure What Matters. “Measurement takes those totals, analyzes what they mean, and uses that meaning to improve business practices.”
In the case of measurement that wins awards, you’ll need metrics that prove your objectives. Saying “300 employees read this article” is counting, but “85% of the target audience could identify our three messages in a survey that followed publication of the article” is measurement.
Preparing your entry allows you to spot the gaps. If you can overcome them – maybe send out an audience survey or gather feedback from key members of your target audience, since there’s still time – you’re well on your way to understanding how successful your strategy was to begin with and how your communication met its objectives.
What won’t be successful is writing an entry that claims that your editorial board or CEO loved your website content or that a speech received a standing ovation. These are not quantitative results, and without real metrics, your entry can’t compete.
Try to be objective about your work
I’m talking about the whole entry package here. If the communication you wrote was truly great, but there are holes in your entry where clear objectives and quantitative results should be, this is probably not the year for you.
The written materials I’ve seen over the years too often are serviceable, with writing suited to subject matter, but not necessarily anything that jumps out from the pack. And, I’m not talking about writing that stands on a chair and shouts, “LOOK AT ME, I’M BEING CLEVER WITH WORDS!” When you see the real deal, you know it.
More Quick Tips on Writing a Winning Entry
Pick a Consistent Style – And stick with it! Active voice, past tense, first person are all fine, but mixing and matching unsettles the reader. If you feel odd about praising your own work, know that you are not alone – many entries are submitted by the author. Odder still is reading an entry that suggests “we did this…we developed that…” only to find a single name listed under Resources.
Edit – Not just your entry, your original work. I’m not suggesting you cheat or pay for a whole print run just to fix a typo in a brochure. Many entries take the form of Word documents. Whether it’s a speech or a blog post, the Word draft may be the easiest or the only format available to someone outside your organization. You’d be amazed how many times judges find typos and grammatical errors in this type of entry. It’s worse when you’re presented with a screen grab of the blog, and can see that the copy was corrected before it was published. In other words, never enter a draft, and always assume that a document that was painstakingly edited five months ago has magically sprouted new errors in the meantime.
Take Advantage of Lists – Writers can feel obligated to use the entry form to showcase their writing. Bullets and lists seem like cheating. You have limited space on the entry: use (allowed) formatting to make your case clearly.
Share Themes – One project I worked on started out feeling like that movie “Apollo 13.” Much of our writing referenced the troubled moon mission. Another project adopted an inexpensive brand of wine with a twist-off cap as a kind of mascot after IT successfully got through integration testing; it was a metaphor for achieving a lot with limited resources. But, folks outside these project teams wouldn’t have understood those references, just as judges sometimes feel metaphors or phrases awkwardly leap out of writing entries. If your writing has references like this, add a sentence or two to your entry that helps the judge: “You’ll find references to [BLANK] throughout because that theme was part of our messaging.”
Tell a Story – Effective entries often weave a tale for the reader. For projects that play out over months rather than days or weeks, it’s fascinating to follow the trajectory from inception to launch to wrap-up. Remember, the judges are in the same profession, and we’re thrilled when you’ve spotted an unmet need, wordsmithed great messages, engaged your target audiences, and have the metrics to reflect that.
Don’t Be Afraid of Surprises – If you’ve been at this job long enough, you’ve encountered bumps in the road. It’s natural. If you can demonstrate that you responded to the unexpected using the same strategic approach, set new objectives, adjusted messaging, created new communications, and had measurable results, then write the whole story of your success. What you’ll show is that you’re strategic, not that there was a problem with your original plan.
Best of luck to you and your team this awards season!
P.S. For additional perspective, check out this terrific blog post, “How to write an awards entry that stands out,” from Econsultancy.
Like a lot of writers and artists, I had an aversion to math when I was younger. Then, I took a statistics class in high school, and it changed the way I viewed the study of mathematics, its real-world application, and, perhaps most profoundly, my own ability to understand analytical concepts.
It sounds incredibly geeky, but once I learned the difference between mean, median and mode, and how frequently they’re confused, I never looked at statistics in a news report, election result, textbook chapter, or research paper in the same light.
Lately, I’ve read more than a handful of articles and press releases that misuse or leave out statistics gathered via surveys or studies.
As professional writers, we occasionally need to delve into the world of math and statistics. Whether you’re preparing a press release, writing an article for the company website, or reporting the news, your facts may rely on figures.
What you don’t want is to be associated with that old saying about lying with statistics. Your credibility rests on your transparency with numbers, especially when the goal is something like press coverage, promotion or a fact-driven news story.
Here are some basics for writing with numbers:
Include the number of subjects who participated in a survey or study
This figure is an absolute requirement (and I’ve seen it missing from more than three recent press releases or website posts in as many months). It is, after all, the starting point for any survey or study and it provides the reader with an ability to judge how relevant the data might be.
Note that in any study or survey there’s a percentage of answers or results that must be discarded: a participant chose not to answer one or more of the questions or results from a lab test were unclear. From a pool of 400 participants, a plus or minus error rate of 1 – 2 percent might be acceptable, but if only 10 people took the time to fill out a survey, even one incomplete or botched entry makes a huge difference to the quality of results.
Frankly, if the participating group is as small as 10, the survey or study probably doesn’t hold a lot of weight scientifically. This hasn’t stopped reporting of such results, but frequently what the reader isn’t told, because it would cast doubt on the validity of both the results and the assertions made about them, is how many people were in the study group.
In scientific and medical research, groups that small are often part of preliminary studies, which is why there is so much regulation around reporting findings that may not have any bearing on larger populations of patients.
Provide a breakdown of participant groups
The more details you provide, the more credible your story becomes. It doesn’t necessarily make the survey or study more credible, but you give your reader the ability to assess the information based on their own understanding of the subject and related facts.
Participant details (as long as you are sharing non-identifying, unconfidential information) can include things like gender, age group, political affiliation, economic strata, professional experience, blood type, etc.
Share types of questions asked, specific information or samples gathered from subjects
Certainly, there’ll be articles where this counts as too much detail, but in a scientific study it might be essential to understand that blood samples were taken within a certain time period following the administration of medication.
For surveys, sharing a greater level of detail comes in handy when highlighting a particularly notable response. Knowing the question helps the reader analyze the answers.
You get bonus points for including the scale used to score a survey (and for using more complex scales – five response options rather than two or three – when conducting a survey in the first place).
Be clear about the scope of findings
Avoid at all costs “universalizing” results. This is a mistake I see frequently. Unintentionally or not, extrapolating findings from the original study group to a large population (for example, using one exit poll to predict an election) misrepresents the scope of the results. It’s striving for a significance that isn’t there.
A survey or study has a specific number of participants; the findings refer to the original population, especially with only one study and no further research to verify the original results.
Results must be qualified with statements like “among people who took the survey,” “according to survey respondents,” “in the study,” and, for large studies, the data may need to be further broken down to percentages within the various subgroups (such as, “x% of the women/seniors, etc., in the study population experienced reactions”).
Avoid calling survey or study methodology “scientific”
Like extrapolating data, appending the word “scientific” to any old survey or study is striving for a kind of credibility the research may not have earned.
The scientific method has since the 17th century provided objective, measurable, repeatable standards and techniques for investigating subjects and gleaning new information. Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive explanation here, but suffice to say, if a study wasn’t conducted by an agency with no investment in the outcome (objective), didn’t start with a hypotheses against which results could be compared and contrasted, proved or disproved (measurable), and wasn’t repeated to ensure reliability of reporting, calling it “scientific” is a misuse of language. Speaking of which…
Understand key terms like “statistical significance”
The word “significant,” when attached to study data, does not translate as “key,” “momentous” or “important.”
“Statistically significant” is a phrase statisticians use when a result is “unlikely to have occurred by chance.” Which also doesn’t mean that it’s important simply because it’s unlikely. The unlikely result would need to be repeatable and measured through additional objective means (at the very least) in order to determine its real-world significance.
Do you have a mathematical pet peeve? What examples of exaggeration have you noticed when it comes to writing with numbers? Feel free to enumerate in the Comments.
Writing that inspired me this week:
“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”
~ Mark Twain, “Chapters from My Autobiography”
There is a moment I dread, perhaps above all else, at the beginning of a project, and it starts with an innocent-sounding request like this: “I need an elevator speech, so that when I go out and talk to stakeholders, I can explain what we’re doing.”
Elevator speeches, as you and Wikipedia know, are intended to “quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition.” The goal is to deliver your prepared speech in the time it takes to ride an elevator from, say, the lobby to the 6th floor.
What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, by definition. It’s practice where we can falter.
5 Tips to Elevate Your Elevator Pitch
When you’re supporting a project, you can improve the impact of communications by offering a quick bit of coaching. Remember, your team was chosen for their expertise in business process development, HR, change management, and IT, not communication. Some may be project – and elevator speech – newbies.
Help them out with these five tips for effective communications:
Time It Right, Part 1: Don’t Play “Beat the Clock”
Do you know how long 30 seconds is? That’s not a trick question. Unless they’ve worked in radio or racing, it’s unlikely most people have a sense for how many words fit into 30 seconds. Wikipedia gives elevator rides a generous 30 seconds-to-2 minute time span. The reality, unless your stakeholder is traveling from the lobby to a skyscraper penthouse, is more like 30 seconds. After exchanging greetings and inquiries about your health, that leaves just enough time for a tagline about your project. You’ll help your team immensely by keeping the elevator speech to one or two sentences, at most.
When you send it out to the team, append it with answers to a set of questions they can expect to get in response. And, for those used to receiving a paragraph-length or longer elevator speech, remind them that brevity is more likely to invite further questions: it leaves the stakeholder wanting more instead of feeling overwhelmed by a long, verbatim speech.
Make It a Natural Part of Conversation
Corporate initiatives struggle under enough weight – from awkward acronyms to flagging sponsorship – so give your team a fighting chance by helping them sound natural, not canned. This, of course, starts with the style and tone of your writing, but depends on the person delivering the elevator speech, as well. Memorization is key, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. If IT phrases things a little differently, let your IT lead change it up for her or his constituents. Most important, encourage the team to listen first.
Has the other person in the elevator (or cafeteria) said “Hi” just to be friendly or are they really starting a conversation? (Hint: Avoid launching into the elevator speech with everyone who says, “Hi.”) What are the conversational indicators that someone wants to know what you’re working on? (Hint: It’s probably not asking, “How are you?,” after saying, “Hi.”)
Really big hint: Someone is more likely to ask what you’re working on if you’ve invited them to talk about their work and expressed real interest in what they do. If that takes up the entire elevator ride, suggest a lunch (if appropriate) or catch them up on the elevator speech next time.
Don’t Corner Your Stakeholder
Remember that episode of “Seinfeld” with the Close Talker? Elevators, small conference rooms, stairwells, and most especially bathrooms are tight quarters and not your stakeholders’ natural habitat. Also, other people frequent these spaces; they may be less receptive to hearing an elevator speech.
Suggest to your team that effective communication is what they’re going for, not communication-at-all-costs. They should be aware of their surroundings, what the stakeholder is attending to, and the appropriateness of delivering the elevator speech there. (Hint: You’d be amazed how many folks need to be reminded not to talk business with stakeholders in the bathroom.)
Time It Right, Part 2: Be Aware of Social Signals
Did that VP of Sales really want details when she asked, “How’s work?,” or is she just being polite and simply want an answer like, “Work’s great!”? Is he looking for space to think? Is she only riding the elevator up to 2? Is he making a private phone call? Late to the next meeting? Deep in conversation with a boss, customer or direct report? Encourage your team to trust their instincts. The elevator speech won’t get a good reception if someone from your project has just interrupted a conversation or stalked a stakeholder from the elevator to a meeting.
Know When It’s Time to Listen, Rather than Speak
After all, stakeholders are the audience most critical to the success or failure of projects. Now do you see why that request for an elevator speech concerns me? It’s because the focus is on what we, the project team, need to say. When we focus so hard on messaging to stakeholders, we tend to forget to listen to what they have to say.
If this is the case, then we have it backward. We need room in our communication plans – and within tactics like elevator speeches – to listen to key audiences.
Our “value proposition” is only as valuable as the audience believes it to be. It’s our stakeholders who give the project credibility among their constituencies. If we want to earn their genuine support and buy-in, so that they go out to the rest of the organization and help us as ambassadors, we need to engage in two-way conversations.
Write it into your plans and help your project team understand that delivering what we need to say shouldn’t get in the way of listening to what audiences have to tell us about how to ensure the success of the project.
Writing that inspired me this week:
~ Dianne Wiest to John Cusack in “Bullets Over Broadway”