Category Archives: Articles

ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Prose, Pixels and Persuasion

Audience

Start with your audience—what they know, what they need to know and how they make sense of the world.

Brevity

Tight copy is the “soul of wit,” and it takes twice as long to write.

Context

Pre-existing knowledge and conditions dictate how an audience receives messages. Incorporate context to add layers of meaning. Ignore context and risk failing to connect.

Drafts

The third draft is always better than the first or second. The fifth? Not so much. Exert the right amount of effort and resist obsession.

The Greeks knew some stuff.

Ethos

Beyond the prevailing zeitgeist, every corporate culture, marketplace and social media following taps into specific memories, values and language to make meaning. Persuasiveness often hinges on these.

Feedback Loops

Natural feedback signals are lost when we use any media—from writing books to broadcasting video. Many of today’s technologies, like social media, are including ways to measure audience reactions. Click-through rates, watch-times and other social media listening techniques act virtually to tell us what’s resonating and why.

Graphics

Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter.

Hyperlinks

Hypertext is the most underappreciated and the most powerful writing developments in our lifetime.

Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents. Your digital composition can unlock the world with the right hyperlinks.

Interface

Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some are the size of matchbooks, others the size of walls. Anticipate which interfaces your audience uses to design features like graphics, audio, video and interactivity.

Juxtaposition

Compare and contrast to help delineate and distinguish.

Knowledge Management

Communication increasingly means managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. It shouldn’t.

Written language is a profoundly complicated technology. If you can master English, spreadsheets should be like coloring books.

Laughter

Comedy is best left to professionals.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

Modality

Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate any or all of these modes into our documents:

  • Text is great for brevity and/or complexity.
  • Video captures short attention spans.
  • Audio contains subtle cues and emotional richness.
  • Interactivity engages the mind, the will and the body.

Negativity

It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. When you say something important, someone else is likely disagree.

Anticipate possible negative reactions and integrate effective responses when possible. On social media, always have strategies for dealing with negative posts. Especially learn how to deal with trolls. (Hint: Don’t feed them.)

No Trolls!

Obviousness

Don’t do the thinking for your audience. You’ll bore them and lose them.

PowerPoint

I know we have to use PowerPoint. But must we use it badly?

When you use it, avoid the well-known sins that lead to glassy looks and ineffective presentations.

Questions

For interest, create questions in the minds of your audience; questions they must answer for themselves.

For clarity, answer the questions your audience might ask if they could.

Repeat

If it needs to be said, say it again and then say it again.

Then say it a different way. Then repeat it. Then recap, referencing the first three times you said it.

Cut a groove into an audience’s memory that isn’t easily erased.

Speed

Quick turnarounds, instantaneous responses and on-the-go content development are creating pressures for communicators to be faster and faster.

It’s amazing and exhilarating to open a mobile app and produce a fully formatted video that posts 5 minutes after initial inception. It’s also exhausting and sometimes reckless to move at the pace afforded by these platforms.

Tap the brakes for better content.

Timing

Impatience can cause an initiative to fail on the launch pad.

Measure the moment, looking for what the Greeks called kairos (the fullness of time, the pregnant moment). This is especially important with campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is critical.

Unaddressed Issues

When you choose not to directly address issues that are important to your audience, it’s often helpful to signal that you’ve made a conscious choice and are not guilty of ignorance or oversight.

Voice

Professionals are often required to slip into their client’s voice rather than to find their own.

We all have a style. We just have to open our mouth and sing to find it.

Words

I love words. You love words. The right word is a delicious morsel; the crafted sentence a feast.

It may seem that technology is pushing words aside, but fear not. Words accomplish things AI never will. In the hands of artisans (smiths), words reach into our memories, touch our hearts and create our possible worlds.

X-rated

Always avoid blue jokes and references (see Laughter).

Yell

SOMETIMES IT’S GOOD TO GO BIG!!!

Zig when others Zag.

If everyone is using digital, it may be time to mail a beautifully crafted, glossy print piece.

More Ideas

Culture Uncentered

Workers Share a Culture Even if They Don't Share a Place

Editor’s Note: We first published this article in 2016, long before Covid-19 realities pushed so many more of us into remote working.

Culture (kuhl-cher) n., the way we do things around here

“Corporate culture” can be tough to define. We talk about it. Sometimes we try to change it. Sometimes we try to strengthen it. But it’s not always clear what “it” is. The essence of corporate culture is well captured in a scene from the 1992 film A Few Good Men. During a cross examination, Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, has this exchange with a witness, Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes, played by Noah Wyle.

Kaffee:  Corporal, would you turn to the page in this book that says where the mess hall is, please.

Barnes: Well, Lt. Kaffee, that’s not in the book, sir.

Kaffee: You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?

Barnes: No, sir. Three squares a day, sir.

Kaffee: I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?

Barnes: Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.

An organization’s culture is often thought of as “the way we do things around here.” But what happens when you take away the “here”? What if there is no crowd to follow? What if there is no single chow time?

Is the “Workplace” Still a Thing?

We’re living in an economy where more and more work is performed by individuals on their own time, from their own place, and in collaboration with others they might never meet in person. In such an economy, what is a “workplace”? What do words like culture, organization, workforce, or even employee mean?

Think of Uber. Founded in 2012, Uber touts itself as Everyone’s Private Driver™. But Uber doesn’t own any cars. Instead, it connects riders and drivers through a mobile app. According to its website, the number of Uber drivers has grown to about 175,000 in less than three years. That’s more people than The Walt Disney Company employs.1 It’s an enormous workforce, but since Uber drivers drive their own cars and work where and when they want, does Uber have a culture?

I’ve used Uber a handful of times and the experience has always been about the same. The driver shows up quickly (usually before I’m ready to go). The car is clean, and the driver is polite and as talkative (or not talkative) as any other driver I’ve ever hired. So, there must be something going on that helps create a consistent customer experience. How do they do it?

Uber may be an extreme example of a virtual workforce, a thriving experiment of the new, technology-empowered “sharing economy”. But well before Uber arrived on the scene, a growing number of companies were allowing their employees to work outside the office walls.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves rose 79 percent between 2005 and 2012. That puts the number of remote workers at an estimated 3.2 million people.

But that’s just the full-timers. According to a study by the Freelancers Union & Elance-oDesk, more than one-third of the American workforce is freelance. These “freelancers” include temporary workers and so-called “moonlighters” who hold down full-time jobs and do independent work (like the NFL player who drives for Uber during the off-season).

While not every company is using freelancers or allowing its employees to work remotely today, like Yahoo! and Hewlett Packard, we might expect more companies to try this approach. (Amazon is reportedly developing an Uber-like app known as “On My Way” that would allow anybody to pick up packages from central locations and deliver them to their final destinations.2) If the trend continues, we’ll have a world in which work culture and workplace have an increasingly tenuous relationship. But this doesn’t necessarily mean organizational culture will simply vanish or that water cooler talk will stop just because there’s no actual water cooler.

6 Ways to Promote a Way of Doing Things Around “Here”

Thanks to social media and other online tools, groups that live around the world can share a “way of doing things” even though they rarely — or never — meet face-to-face. (Have you tried to read a teenager’s comments on Instagram lately?) Whether at the most traditional organizations or the most virtual, culture relies on strong ideas that become accepted and shared by the group. Here are a few important things an employer can do to guide and influence a productive “way of doing things around here” even when there’s no “here” there.

1. Write it down.

What core values, beliefs, or actions make you successful? What do your people do; how do they do it; why do they do it? Why do your customers like you? Why do people want to work with you? Culture can be effectively transmitted through stories. Is there a story that captures the essence of your organization? Answer these questions and write it down.

2.  Appeal to the right people.

Uber has a very simple, very clear appeal that they repeat over and over to drivers: Be your own boss. That’s going to appeal to people who are independent and driven. Know the kind of person you want as part of your team. Know what appeals to those people and craft a message that will resonate with them.

3. Use social media.

Based on their research, Gallup says having a “a best friend at work” is one of the 12 traits of highly productive workgroups.³ People are social and working from home or outside a traditional office can be isolating. You can help create and strengthen bonds among team members by using any of the free and easy-to-access social media platforms that are available. You don’t have to moderate these interactions. You may simply want to facilitate online connections.

4. Communicate with the team.

Broad-based communications can help remind individuals that they are a part of something bigger. You don’t want to burden your people with superfluous, irrelevant messages, but you do want to remind them, from time to time, how they fit in and how their work supports the whole.

5. Bring them together.

If you can, have a get-together at least once a year. If you can’t bring your people together in real space, consider bringing them together in real time. Try webcasts, chats, and the fun new app Periscope. Again, there are many good social media tools that can serve as a platform for huddling up your far-flung teams.

6. Identify virtual mentors.

You may do this formally or informally. If you point out the successful, experienced people — the living examples of the culture you want — people new to the group will naturally seek out their guidance. Sometimes it’s just easier to ask a peer for advice than a manager.

Sources

¹ http://disneycareers.com/en/about-disney/global-footprint/

² “Amazon’s Next Delivery Drone: You”, Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2015

³ http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/511

More Ideas

Summary Plan Descriptions

Why I Love SPDs.

I love SPDs. This is a feeling not universally shared by those clients and colleagues who are tasked with developing and maintaining them (or even most of us who receive them).

When I first began working on SPDs, I didn’t fully appreciate them. I often described them in terms that weren’t always (let’s just say) the most flattering. However, more exposure to these documents has helped me value their finer points.

Benefits make a difference. Benefits are a critical part of employees’ total rewards from their employer. A thoughtfully developed benefits program provides a safety net for employees and their families. How employees participate in these programs can affect their overall financial picture, now and far into the future.

I create multiple communication/education programs associated with employee benefits, ranging from recruiting to new hire to annual enrollment materials and beyond. SPDs assume a unique position in this communication universe. In many ways, they are the backbone of any benefits program.

SPDs are legally mandated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA specifies information, timing and distribution requirements to make sure participants are informed about how their benefits work and legal protections provided to them. [ERISA background]

SPDs provide employees important legal and regulatory details, such as rights and protections provided under ERISA. These include where to go for help; who is responsible for running the plan and what their duties entail; what benefits are insured, e.g., defined benefit plans under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; what rights are in place if a claim is denied; and required notices, such as the Women’s Cancer Rights Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

SPDs are a comprehensive user’s manual and reliable reference tool. The SPD provides information about eligibility, enrollment, timing requirements, benefits provided, where to go for more information and much more. Rules can be complicated and have big financial implications.  [Requirements for a 401k SPD]

Participants are encouraged to read the documents carefully and keep them in a convenient place for future reference. Now SPDs are commonly posted electronically for easy access at any time.

Keeping an SPD up-to-date is the realm of a team of benefit professionals—HR staff, technical benefit consultants, specialized attorneys, and communicators. Legal contracts, insurance policies and documents that spell out how a benefit plan works must be translated into understandable language for the average person. [SPD Development Strategy]

Such an important document deserves our respect. We should all view the SPD as a valuable resource that helps employees find information, use their benefits effectively and appreciate their employer’s investment in their well-being.

For those  reasons, I love SPDs!

Pat Dodd is a senior consultant  at Smith Communication Partners. 

More Ideas

What We're Reading

Our nightstands are overflowing with good reads.

Glen Gonzalez (Click on our name to access to our LinkedIn pages)

The Storyteller by Dave Grohl.

Even though they are considered a standard bearer for my generation, I wasn’t a big Nirvana fan when they broke through; but they had an undeniable impact on rock music. Over the years, though, I have become a fan of Dave Grohl’s various music projects: Probot, Them Crooked Vultures, the Sound City documentary and, of course, Foo Fighters. He’s easily rock’s greatest ambassador and it’s most dynamic catalyst right now. I don’t typically read books like this but my wife picked it up for me and, so far, it’s been worth the read. 

The Poetry of Freedom

I found a used copy of this 1948 anthology on the theme of freedom while browsing a small bookstore. I was immediately intrigued. It includes religious poems, anti-religious poems, patriotic poems, poems of battle and poems from “our enemies” in war. It includes works both familiar and unexpected, domestic and international, resulting in a panoramic, human perspective on the concept of liberty — one worth revisiting and relishing. 

Jennifer Needham 

Whiskey in a Teacup by Reese Witherspoon

My reading lurched across the spectrum in 2021. Everything from Whiskey in a Teacup (Reese Witherspoon’s cookbook/Southern entertaining guide) to The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson. Tyson’s book reads like a novel, taking Till’s story from Chicago to Mississippi.

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith

My favorite book of the year — and the one I’ve given as a gift several times — was How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith. If you want to broaden your perspective and learn about erased history, start with Smith’s book. Smith is a poet and his book is worth the read not only for his explorations but also for his writing. Oddly enough, I’ve learned about my own family history from both the Tyson and Smith books. What a gift.

Don Sanford 

The Overstory by Richard Powers

I’m currently reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and was released in 2018, back before the pandemic crept into our lives and changed everything. While the book is essentially about trees, it’s mostly about the people who live around the trees and about their lives. It is masterfully written and a surprisingly engaging read, given the subject is, well, trees. 

I’m also reading, or shall I say, perusing, The History of Art in 50 Paintings. I read clips from it on occasion because I want to better understand Art and how we got where we are today. It’s a chore sometimes, but I find it helps me by making me more aware of Art … and sometimes it even helps me answer a query or two on Jeopardy. I am woefully ignorant about most topics in Art. This book helps me be less so.

Amy Crowell 

Stoner by John Williams

Currently finishing Stoner on the recommendation of Trey on the recommendation of Rick. (One of the many benefits of working with smart people.)

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart.

On the shelf is Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart, my first read set in the pandemic.

At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop about a Sengalese villager who finds himself fighting  with the French army during World War I. It’s first up on the virtual book club my college roommates and I are starting this month.

Julia Wolf

The Last Negroes at Harvard by Kent Garrett and Jeanne Ellsworth

“The Last Negroes at Harvard: The Class of 1963 and the 18 Young Men Who Changed Harvard Forever” by Kent Garrett. I decided to order this book after reading an intriguing review in the WSJ. At this point I’m about halfway through the book. As a white woman who is only slightly younger than the group described in the book, I found it to be a profoundly compelling read, and fascinating snapshot of our society as a whole.

One Man’s West by David Lavender

“One Man’s West” by David Lavender. I bought this several years ago while on a visit to Arizona. It’s a fascinating (and sometimes cringe-worthy) look at life in the American West in the 20s and 30s.

Michael Garcia

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

A wonderful novel about baseball — one of my favorite things — that’s not really about baseball at all.

Allison Artnak

All the Colors of Life written and illustrated by Lisa Aisato

I came across this book online while Christmas shopping. I wasn’t familiar with the author/illustrator, Lisa Aisato, but apparently she is a well-known illustrator in Norway. I looked at sample pages online and thought it was incredible, so I ordered one as a gift and one for myself. I was absolutely blown away by the creativity and illustration. And even better, it’s a story of experiences in sequential order from childhood through adulthood (it’s 192 pages, but there is one sentence or two per spread, so it is a super fast read, but you linger on each page to soak in the beauty and all of the detail in each full-spread illustration). It is lovely on so many levels. She has written and illustrated six other books that I will explore sometime in the future.

David McCandless is an author, photo-journalist and information designer in the U.K. I first learned of David and his work while looking for unique infographics roughly 10 years ago and came across his website (https://informationisbeautiful.net/). I bought his first book (it was awesome!) and since then, visit his website at least four times a year to see what’s new in the world of infographics. He has a new book (Beautiful News:…) that will be released in the U.S. in March that I have pre-ordered and I can’t wait to get my hands on.

Sara Levinson

This is John U. Bacon’s account of the 1918 explosion of the cargo ship Mont-Blanc in Halifax harbor. The 2.9 kiloton TNT explosion, the most powerful ever excepting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leveled the surrounding city and caused a thirty-five-foot tsunami. The choices made that day ultimately killed 11,000…but heroic and remarkable efforts saved thousands. 

Norine Cannon 

Come Fly the World by Julie Cooke

Fascinating stories from Pan Am flight attendants who worked for the airline in the late 60s to mid-70s. Required to have a college degree and speak two languages, they played a role in the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon. Good discussion on sexism, gender and racial discrimination.

The Book of Hope by Jane Goodall and Douglass Abrams

Goodall makes an argument for hope in these challenging times. She highlights some of the positive changes happening in the world and shares stories of the exquisite wonders of nature.

Trey Wood

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Like most who know of Bukowski, I was introduced to his writing through his poetry which, on occasion, is not filled with obscenities. But those are rare moments just as his output of novels was rare. While he produced thousands of poems and hundreds of short stories, the writer only completed six novels. Post Office takes the grimly hysterical world of Bukowski’s poetry and stretches it to novel length. If you never get offended, Charles Bukowski is up for the challenge. 

A History of Britain by Simon Schama

This is one of those wonderful books that accompanies a documentary series one might see on PBS or the History Channel. In fact, Schama’s documentary of the same name first appeared in the US in just that manner twenty years ago. Unfortunately, I did not see the series but I have enjoyed the book immensely, particularly the facts and speculations that intertwine to tell the story of Britain 3500 B.C. to the time of the first Romans. 

Nature’s God by Matthew Stewart

This beautifully written book is the retelling of our country’s founding. Stewart endeavors to convince the reader that the American experiment, as envisioned by the likes of Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and many others, was not just a liberation from non-representational government but also a demand from the tyranny of super natural religion. Occasionally, Stewart comes close to invoking Dan Brown and the reader expects someone from the Illuminati to be quoted. But he manages to avoid that trap and produces a very interesting read. 

Rick Cole

Together by Vivek Murthy M.D.

Covid has physically cut us off from one another. Social media, instead of connecting us, creates more desire for human warmth than any cold LED can muster (or worse, causes us to cancel each other). Should we be surprised that there’s a crisis of loneliness?

Dr. Murthy explains how loneliness is more than just sad. It’s an epidemic contributing to disease, despair and violence. His book is solidly informative, warmly compassionate and reminder about what’s important and how to nurture it.

Beyond HR by J. W. Boudreau and P.M. Ramstad.

“Human Capital” is not just a clever rebrand. It’s an emerging approach to work that leverages technology to optimize the management of personnel and assignment. Boudreau posits a future role for HR departments that pushes them far beyond their traditional roles of talent acquisition and compliance toward full immersion into managing/maximizing of people, teams and processes. Fascinating book.

Haven’t They Suffered Enough? Beano Cooke and John Lukas

As corporate media continues culling true characters and eccentric personalities from onscreen talent pools, it’s wonderful to reminisce over the words of a Beano Cooke. This old school sports journalist was a fantastic raconteur and innovative media talent. (Beano was a co-founder of College Game Day.)

This book is Beano in his own words — writings and stories compiled by his protege and mentee John Lukas. If you love great story telling, college football, or laughing, read this book.

Scott Walters

The Cult of Trump by Steven Hassan

Regarding current events, Steven Hassan’s “The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control” struck me as an important piece. Cultural trends, and lessons learned from history, sparked my interest in the subject of Hassan’s book. I’m hoping this book shed light on a very disruptive, growing ethos.

Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Like most folks, I was introduced to Barthes in college but have always wanted to dig a little deeper. “Mythologies” has particular relevance for designers — speaking specifically about his writings on Semiology (study of signs and symbols). Understanding how individuals and communities assign meaning to things is very much in my wheelhouse. 

More Ideas