Category Archives: Communication Technology

What does this mean?

Rewriting writing rules in real time.

Red pen regime

When I hear any fuss about textspeak—weird punctuation, abbreviations, inventive phrasing and other short cuts that are common to texting— I think about the moral certitude of Mrs. Wilson. She was my 8thgrade English teacher and the type of grammarian who would send a parent’s note back to them with the errors circled in red ink.

Mrs. Wilson taught us the rules of grammar as though they had descended from Mt. Sinai. These were not to be questioned, only obeyed in their immutable state of perfection.  

Many hold on to Mrs. Wilson’s view of grammar, not recognizing that these rules are not laws of nature. No, grammar and punctuation are invented technological conventions designed to help us merge speech, writing and printing. 

Like any technology, these conventions have a beginning and a history. Mrs. Wilson’s rules have only been with us for a couple hundred years.  

Disruption 1.0

About 500 years ago, before the printing press was invented, books were hand-illustrated, rare and extremely expensive. Also, most weren’t written in the vernacular, but in Latin. 

Latin, an inflected language, doesn’t use word order to determine sentence structure. Instead, agreement between prefixes and suffixes determine syntax. Even with the words rearranged, each sentence below reads, “Bad is the plan that cannot be changed.” 

malum consilium quod mutari non potest

non postest quod mutari consilium malum 

quod mutari malum consilium non potest 

To make matters even more confusing, up until just before the printing press was invented scribes didn’t use punctuation or even spaces between words. They wrote in a form called scriptio continua

malumconsiliumquodmutarinonpotest

A page in a book looked like this: 

A little hard to read.

The way people read scriptio continua without punctuation was out loud, allowing the inflections in the language signal all of the separations and meanings. 

The point of this little history lesson is that only a few centuries ago most people didn’t read. Those that did, commonly read aloud. And the majority of existing books didn’t have punctuation or space between words. Then everything changed with Johannes Guttenberg’s movable type press. BOOM!

Movable Type

The printing press awoke and transformed forms of writing that had been stagnant for a couple millennia. It facilitated knowledge sharing and built connections between people and cultures. But this didn’t happen immediately. 

For the first 200 years of printing, there were no agreed upon rules. Each little town’s printers invented their own way of making books. They made up their own unique spacing and punctuation and also cut and pasted ideas from competing printers. From this process emerged various letter shapes, punctuation marks, spacing, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc. 

Over time, these divergent methods merged into the standardized grammar rules that were lovingly taught to us by sweet middle-school teachers with red pens. 

Most of the grammar and punctuation rules that we think are permanent have only become standardized over the past couple of hundred years. In fact, even standardized rules are in flux.  

Fresh and in your face

Today, we are living at an exciting new moment for writing. Computers are freeing words and meanings from the limits of a printed page. New literacies and grammars are being created on the fly. Just like with the first little print shops in Europe, it’s untamed masses (not red pen gatekeepers) who are inventing (un)rules for using OMGs, #s and Emoji.  

Digital forms like text messaging, file sharing and streaming are shifting once immovable constraints of time and space, integrating a myriad of media, and empowering new connections across the globe. 

This makes this a really cool time for writing geeks. We still have the highly precise and refined Standard English for writing contracts and such. And we have this vibrant, eclectic, inventive, bubbling stew of digital communication that is constantly changing, constantly evolving. 

This is a major disruption. Grammars that we viewed as permanent we now see were simply asleep. Computer processors, small screens and user desire are creating something fresh right in front of us.  

People are just starting to write about textspeak. Some write from a linguist’s perspective, others with a cultural curiosity. For me communication is the most interesting issue. How are people connecting and making sense of life while using the capabilities of these new platforms? 

The following observations just scratch the surface of what’s happening with textspeak. 

Short for abbreviation

Two main reasons drive textspeak abbreviations. First, the screen on an SMS text box is small and it scrolls. Every space and character are precious in a small space that must be read in a linear fashion. Second, it’s hip to know what others don’t. Never rule out cool as a driver of change.   

Using abbreviations on a small interface is nothing new. Check out the writing on this coin for the Emperor Trajan: 

Those Romans could pack a lot pomp onto one side of a coin. Two thousand years later, nothing much has changed for our folks in Washington.

At least NASA is kind of cool.

In textspeak, abbreviations and acronyms often signal idioms and colloquialisms, not literal meanings. Where IRS is short for a scary government agency, people writing lol usually aren’t laughing. Sarcasm, irony and slang underscore a lot of textspeak.  

This is where the hip factor comes into play. If you don’t have the 411 on how to KPC then H-MDY…H_FDAY you’re old, slow and uncool. As with any slang, textspeak is a moving target. Try and keep up. 

Here is a list common textspeak abbreviations.

Blocking and Spacing

There’s a maxim in real estate investing—highest and best use—that says a structure needs to elevate the value of the land. In a text message the screen is like an empty lot in San Francisco. You want to be careful to build the right house on it. 

Sorry Shakespeare

Long scrolling texts are very difficult to read because, unlike a full-size page, one’s eye cannot scan back up through the document to connect points and references. Both the writer and the reader can easily get lost. 

They’re also unfriendly. Imagine a conversation where one of the parties just kept talking and talking while the other party was reduced to simply nodding. Many good conversational on and off ramps are bulldozed in a long text. Maybe, send an email instead. 

Monologue v. Dialogue

Blocking and spacing is a textspeak alternative to punctuation that helps us stop/pause/resume. It also enables the writer to separate and emphasize important points in the conversation.

Remembering that texting more closely approximates talking than it does formal writing, blocks and spaces also make room for the reader to jump in with a comment, rebuttal or (more typically) a random non sequitur.  

ALL CAPS

ALL CAPS are everywhere in advertising and print media. They are meant to stand out and grab our attention. However well they’ve worked for marketers, they don’t have a great reputation in interpersonal correspondence. 

Most of us have either sent or received an angry email. So, we understand that ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING!!! But we don’t only shout when were mad. Sometimes we shout when we’re excited or happy, or even ironic: 

  • To exclaim: CONGRATS
  • To emphasize: We will be heading to Atlanta NEXT WEEKEND 
  • To be ironic:  I’m so CHILL 
  • To show how out of touch we are:  LOL is so 2008…lol 

Punctuation optional? (not exactly)  

As I mentioned in my last article, the punctuation issue is getting on peoples’ last nerve. Old school writers are baffled by its chaotic absence and digital natives are thrilled to see it go and change. Here are a few of the ways punctuation is different in textspeak:

  • The period signals passive-aggressiveness.
  • An asterisk signals *emphasis*, like little sparkles.
  • The ~humble~ tilde is sarcastic. 
  • A semicolon says show off.
  • An apostrophe signals anal retentiveness. 
  • A single question mark begs a response. Three or more says W@ dude???

For more on evolving punctuation, check this out. 

Sprinkles on Top

Smartphones let us drop wonderful sprinkles on top of our textspeak. We can add music, photos, emoticon, emoji, gifs, video, and more. Linking media is one of my favorite aspects of digital communication. It reminds me of being a kid and discovering a great new band. Half the joy was sharing the music with my friends. 

Over the next few articles we’ll take a closer look at the sprinkles that color to our Internet conversations.  

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How to Write High Performing Emails

Try to name a way in which goldfish are superior to people. 

Swimming aside, it’s attention span. Goldfish have an average attention span of 9 seconds. But humans consuming digital media have an attention span of just 8 seconds.

That’s why you feel like no one reads your emails. Most employees aren’t reading them. Heck – most employees aren’t even opening them.

So: how do you get your emails opened and read? And, how do you reduce complaints like, “But I didn’t know about the deadline!”

We’ve got to lean into the way our employees consume information now – like it or not. 

  • Nineteen percent of online viewers defect in the first 10 seconds, so we have to pack the most important information up top.
  • We process information better in short bursts of high attention, so send a series of short, just-in-time messages rather than one long, comprehensive email. (You can link your email to a comprehensive reference article on your intranet instead.)
  • We find it exciting to jump from subject to subject, so when you have to make multiple but related points, be sure to write in short, bulleted sentences and use compelling headlines.

Now this doesn’t mean that you should become Susie Email, constantly invading your employees’ inbox. You need a strategy, and for that we can take inspiration from an online marketing launch sequence.

When our clients have a specific email campaign they want to undertake – maybe it’s ESPP enrollment or Deferred Compensation enrollment or asking employees to consider a Health Savings Account – we suggest they focus on five core emails. We’re just taking the launch strategy and paring it way back.

Here’s how it works – and if five emails feels like too much for your subject, emails 4 and 5 are optional. (But they are proven to be really effective, so use them!)

  1. Preview content, deliver value
  2. Address mental blocks, build credibility
  3. Introduce the “product”
  4. (Answer the most common objections)
  5. (Reinforce deadline)

The gist is: bite size information in each email. Each email should have a specific purpose and lead to the next email in the sequence. You want only one main message and one call to action per email.

Still worried that five emails feels intrusive? Remember that you are tailoring your content so that it’s helpful and actionable. Employees won’t be irritated by news they can use.

If you can, segment your audience. For instance, you might target a Health Savings Account email to employees who aren’t currently enrolled in an HSA. Segmenting your audience allows you to target your message. More specific messaging can lead to higher open and click through rates because the content is more relevant to the reader.

Now, how can you make your emails more reader-friendly?

  1. Use the employee’s name and personal pronouns.
  2. Your sender name should be familiar to your audience, so maybe it’s Acme Benefits Team rather than John.Smith@acme.
  3. Your subject line should include both a desirable promise and an information gap. That’s a combination of what the reader wants + curiosity: “Want to save money on healthcare in 2020?”
  4. Write a compelling preheader. This is the short summary text that follows the subject line when an email is viewed in the inbox.
  5. The headline of your email should build on the promise of your subject line and pre-header. If you asked a question in the subject line, answer it in the header.
  6. In the first paragraph of your email, get to the point fast – in three sentences max. Tell the reader what action you want him to take.
  7. Focus on benefits to the reader – not features of the plan.
  8. Give your readers a way to avoid pain: Most people want to avoid inconveniences, glitches, and complications. Consider rephrasing the benefits of your offer as a problem you’ll help them avoid.
  9. Present a clear deadline: it prevents people from procrastinating. Never pressure people to PUSH them into acting. Instead, use pressure to PREVENT them from procrastinating. Do this by using the magic word “because”: give people a logical reason why they should act now (instead of procrastinating), and more people will do what you ask.
  10. Repeat your call to action in a post-script and make it crystal clear.

How do you measure success?

A 30% open rate plus a 3.5% click-through rate is really good. Don’t worry about the 70%: that means you can – and should — repeat your content in another format.

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Status Bar

A Simple Answer to One of Life’s Nagging Questions

Are we there yet?

Wouldn’t it be great if more things in life came with a status bar? I’m sure my parents would have loved to have one during our long-distance road trips. As we nagged from the backseat, my dad could have pointed to the windshield where a little bar slowly filled in, indicating our progress. (Of course, Waze and Google Maps serve that function these days.)

Are we there yet?

They’d also be great at cocktail parties. Let’s say you get stuck in a pointless, one-sided conversation. As the other person drones on, a little bar floats above him, slowly filling in, letting you know how much longer you’ll have to wait before you can politely excuse yourself to freshen your drink.

Are we there yet?

Nonprofits and elementary schools have been using status bars since before they became commonplace on computers, smartphones and websites. They were the big thermometers that slowly inched up with every donation collected, every pledge made. These signs were a brilliant way to recognize achievements while reminding everyone just how much farther they had to go.

Are we there yet?

The question of just how much farther one has to go nags us all. At work, maybe we watch the clock ticking down to the end of a shift. Maybe we’re wondering how much more we have to do to bump up a performance rating from a 3 to a perfect 4. Or maybe we want to know how close we are to meeting a sales number, revenue goal or some other quota. A status bar could be the answer.

Are we there yet?

Status bars remind us to complete our LinkedIn profiles. They tell us not to wildly punch keys on our keyboards as our computers download files or open applications. They tell us not to stop, and give us a reachable goal. They nudge without nagging. They address the anxiety that comes from not knowing whether we’re making any progress. Imagine going to work every day and seeing an array of status bars that indicate your progress on personal goals and the organization’s progress on business goals. These cunning little graphics can help keep us all focused, patient and motivated by answering a simple, notorious question …

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Smith Bits

Q: How can I make this 24-page enrollment guide easier to review?

Make Your PDF “Interactive” And Improve Its Use

“I just need to jam in one more comment … no make that two … okay a paragraph or two … alright a few pages … but it’s all good stuff the employee needs to know.”  

Sound familiar? By the time we are done talking ourselves into an expanded benefits enrollment guide it has become so long, that if you printed it off, it would be a thick enough wad of paper to serve as a replacement leg on that broken couch.

It was Mark Twain who said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Thus, poking fun at how we drone on and on and how difficult it is to edit our messages to make them sharp and succinct. Editing is a fine art that has become lost on many.

Still, when it comes to benefits information, it’s just not that easy. There is a lot of information that a person might need and could be critical in helping him or her make a decision that later has financial impact on their lives. Not every employee needs all of the information, but it still needs to be there for the ones who do. What should you do?

Your best bet is to organize the material so it is easy to navigate.  This isn’t Shakespeare you are editing, so it doesn’t need to be flowing prose that someone will study from beginning to end. Rather, your goal is to make it accurate, engaging and well-organized – and especially easy to find specific information. Most readers are hunting for a nugget of content and couldn’t care less about the other 23 pages of “mission critical” stuff you have jammed into the guide. If they can find it fast and with ease, you will win them over.

Layer Your Documents With Helpful Information

One of the niftier improvements by Adobe in recent years is the ability to create links within a pdf. The feature makes “wandering” to the information you want much easier and less frustrating.

Want to jump to the section on dental benefits? … easy peasy … just click here. Want to jump to the section on how to enroll? … fine and dandy … click on this link here. You can structure the contents of the pdf to create an experience much like you would have with a website … only all the links, jumping and content are contained in that one document. And … get this … it doesn’t cost anything more for this feature. It’s already built into the pdf software. It just takes a little planning on to set the document up to make it truly interactive.

So next time you create a bulky document that you absolutely, positively must send to all employees … make sure it is easy to find all those needed content nuggets. And, take the time to make it interactive so your readers can glide from section to section with ease. You may not satisfy Mark Twain, but you will empower your employees to experience a faster and better to interact with important content.

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