7 Tips to Instantly Give Your Content Personality

Content with personality sells. Brands spend big bucks developing a distinct voice that makes them stand out. Conversational words engage your prospects instead of putting them to sleep, or worse, buying from someone else. This idea of copy that is personable and professional at the same time is what I built my career on. And here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help your brand stand out from the pack.

1. Keep words and sentences short.
Big words do not make you sound smart. (I actually had to re-write that sentence. Originally it said, “Big words make you sound pretentious.” I have to keep even myself in check.) Long sentences make you seem boring. Readers, especially savvy web-oriented ones, don’t actually read — they scan. Short sentences keep these scanners more engaged, which leads to more sales. I try to keep most of my sentences to one thought, or clause. Sometimes two. More that that, and I try to break it up into separate sentences. Another way to put this idea is, “write like you talk.”

2. Use contractions.
When we’re talking casually, we use contractions — those “shortcut” words like can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, etc. We say – “I’d love to join you, but I can’t. Maybe next time, when I don’t have a conflict.”  In conversation, we’ll use the non-contracted form when we need to clarify or make a point. For example, “Joe, for the last time, I will not go on a date with you. Please, do not ask me again.” Using contractions instantly lightens the tone of your communications, and (you guessed it) makes your readers feel more engaged with your content.

3. Choose the “sparkle” word.
Which has more personality? “We’re happy to announce…” or “We’re thrilled to announce…” They essentially mean the same thing, but “thrilled” jumps out just a little more because it’s more exact. Happy is generic. It’s probably the first word you’ll reach for. Stretching just a little bit for that vibrant word can make your copy sing.

4. Write in the present tense, active voice, second person.
In non-academic terms, this means – avoid the words “have” or “been” and use the word “you”. Writing in this style is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your reader. It puts them in the here and now. It makes it feel like you’re having a conversation with them through the screen. Compare, for example, these two sentences: “We have enjoyed working with wonderful clients like you.” Versus, “You are a wonderful client. Thank you for your business. It makes ours more fun.” See the difference?

5. Know which (few) grammar rules you can break.
On occasion, I’ll start a sentence with “and”. I sometimes end with a preposition, too. That’s because these grammar rules help facilitate the conversational style. But there are some rules that when broken, make you look silly, or stupid, or ignorant. Here’s just a small sampling.

  • Your (you own it) vs. You’re (you are)
  • There (not here) vs. Their (it belongs to them) vs. They’re (they are)
  • Assure (give support) vs. Insure (to buy or sell insurance)
  • Affect (verb) vs. Effect (noun – can you put “the” in front of it?)
  • “A lot” is two words.

There are plenty more, and feel free to vent in the comments below. To keep your writing neat and tidy, try typing your opposing words in a search engine with “vs” between them. You can also check out The Grammar Girl.

6. Accessorize with styles.
Not to sound like your high-school English teacher, but rhetorical styles such as alliteration, metaphor, similes, rhyme, and repetition are marks of great writing. So use them. A word of caution though; too much of any of these styles, and you can easily swing to the other side of the personality pendulum (the one where you sound like an amateur and we don’t want that). It’s best to think of these styles like an accessory — add enough to accentuate your content, but not too much where you overwhelm the message.

7. Read out loud before you publish.
And by “out loud”, I don’t mean “really loud and slow but still in my head”. It means with your voice, at a natural volume. In addition to catching typos, this form of editing is perfect for making sure your content is conversational. Does it sound natural? If there’s a sentence that just doesn’t flow, work with it until it sounds right. Then, give your content to someone who hasn’t read it yet. Ask them to read it out loud. Then, massage any phrases that tripped them up.

With these simple tweaks, you can transform writing that’s bland and impersonal, into content that brings your readers closer to your brand. These are great tips for all sorts of business communications in both print and web. Have a question about how to implement these styles? Have a story about how you turned your copy around? Want to vent about your grammar pet peeves? Put it in the comment below.

Thanks, and happy writing!

10 Ways to Become a Writer (That Gets Paid)

If you’re looking to transition your love of writing from hobby to vocation, keep reading – this post is just for you.

1. Own Your Talent – You are a writer. No matter how listless and gray your cubicle is, or how many people tell you “that would never work”, your passion is the fuel that will drive your career. Whenever you are in doubt, say to yourself (out loud if possible) “I am a talented writer and am in the process of building my successful career.”

Action: Check out The Secret for an emotional jump start.

2. Pick a Niche – Trying to be everything to everyone makes you nothing to nobody. Instead of trying to be a Jill-of-all-trades, pick a passion and write about that. Do you want to be a travel writer? a food critic? a copywriter? a fashion writer? a business writer? a sports writer? Owning a niche also helps others connect you with employers more easily.

Action: Start a blog about something you’re passionate about and use it as part of your portfolio.

3. Will Write for __________. While I am not necessarily an advocate for giving your writing away (see below for pro bono work), writing for barter is an effective way to beef up your portfolio without feeling like you’ve sold out your talent. When I first started, I bartered with a nutritionist, a life coach and a couple other services so that I could get my career off the ground. (Disclaimer: there are specific tax implications for working on barter and I would suggest discussing them with your accountant.)

Action: Write a list of services that you’d use given the opportunity. Keep your eyes peeled. You never know when an opportunity will come your way.

4. Pack Your Portfolio. As a writer, your portfolio is one of the most important tools of your trade. Pack it with your best work, testimonials from clients and visuals. Organize it based on category. For example, mine is a red, leather-bound three ring binder (office store under $15) with tabs labeled: Testimonials, Direct Mail, Web Copy, Press Releases, Fliers, Advertisements, and Articles.

Action: Purchase a high quality portfolio and nice, heavy paper to print your writing.

5. A Testament to Testimonials. In addition to the testimonials in the front of my portfolio, I also have testimonials beside their respective project. It helps reinforce the success of a particular piece and is a major selling point for using my skills.

Action: Send out a request for testimonials to all of your clients. No clients? Try friends, teachers, or family.

6. Pro Bono Can Pay Off. Charities and non-profit organizations are constantly seeking volunteers. Offering your services to reputable organizations can help you make connections, bulk up your portfolio and give back to your community.

Action: Do a web search for organizations in your area. Contact two that you find interesting and inquire about opportunities to volunteer your writing.

7. Publish Yourself. With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to market yourself. Capitalize on networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Lulu.com. Submit articles to aggregate sites like work.com or about.com. And most importantly, have a blog and website to make your portfolio searchable.

Action: Set up an online portfolio using a simple web tool such as Yahoo! or GoDaddy.com

8. Make Business Cards. You are a writer, right? Then lend yourself some credibility with professional business cards. And don’t skimp on the quality. Nice, heavy stock paper with a clean design is an investment well worth the effort.

Action: Go to http://www.vistaprints.com and order business cards with your new title.

9. Designers Are Your New Best Friends. Want to get lots of clients quickly? Attend a networking function for graphic designers with your new handy-dandy business cards. Clients often go straight to a designer when they need work – seldom do they seek out a writer. And designers usually hate writing and will be glad to refer the writing portion of the job to you.

Action: Find an area networking event geared to graphic designers. Attend, shake hands and make friends.

10. Stop Whining. Start Writing. Quit complaining that you could be something more. If you want to be a writer – write! Every day. No exceptions. Becoming a great writer takes hard work and dedication. Don’t waste your talent.

Action: Write something every day. No exceptions.

Related Links

A Few Words on Laziness and Responsibility by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Do You Call Yourself a Professional Writer? by Laura Spencer

How to Be a Professional Writer by L.C. Peterson

Becoming a Writer Seriously by Thomas Colvin

How Do You Become a Writer by Amanda Eyre Ward

A Fun Game Between the Superbowl Ads (And I’m Not Talking About Football)

Ok. I admit it. When it comes to sports, I could frankly care less. I didn’t even know who was playing in the “Big Game” until this afternoon (sad, I know).

But I still get super jazzed around this time of year…for the commercials!

Last year, I created a survey (I know, I’m a dork…I get it) to poll the party I attended to find out what people thought of the ads. What started out as a tremendously nerdy exercise on my part ended up being the catalyst for some very interesting debates (Rodney, I’m not going to let you throw Frito’s at people you disagree with this year!)

If you’re like me, you may want to partake in the fun. Here’s the list I came up with last year. Take this list to your party and let me know what you and your friends think by posting a comment below. Additional categories welcome. 🙂

  • Best Use of a Celebrity
  • Most Controversial
  • Most Effective
  • Best New Product/Service/Idea
  • Funniest
  • Best Tagline
  • Biggest Waste of Money
  • Most Likely to Be Blogged About/Talked About Around the Water Cooler

Or, you can skip the whole “fooseball” thing all together and just attend an “Adbowl” like the one hosted by the Richmond Chapter of the American Marketing Association 

Either way, have a safe and fun Superbowl Sunday!

A Potential Adieu

cat-out-of-the-bag-2.jpgWell, it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. I’ve accepted a position as a Senior Copywriter for a large Fortune  500 company and I’m super stoked about this opportunity.

See, landing a job as a full-time copywriter is sort of like a singer who makes it to Broadway. There are simply too few organizations who can afford a full-time position that most of us end up freelancing to make the best of it. I’ve certainly enjoyed freelancing and I’m looking forward to working with and learning from a team of top talent.

So….the question remains. What am I to do with my blog? I won’t have the time to dedicate like I did when I was freelancing. Yet, my readership is decent and I don’t want to disappoint. I’m considering continuing to post once a week or so as long as I have people who are getting value out of what I have to say. Like I said in my bio – I don’t want to be blogging just to hear myself type.

So, please, let me know your thoughts. What do you enjoy reading the most and how can I continue to serve you through this blog? Leave your answer in the comments below.  🙂

To your success,

Andrea

Does a Mac Make You More Creative?

mac-haircut.jpg
The other day I was typing away at a local coffee shop when a stranger approached me and asked me what I did for a living. When I responded, “I’m a writer,” he furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. “But you don’t have a mac,” he replied with sincere disbelief. “How can you be a ‘creative’ and use a PC?”

Simple. I’m a writer and I need one program – Word. That’s it. No fancy schmancy programs like graphic designers need. When I first went out on my own and needed a computer I looked at several different options. At the time, my PC was about a third of the price of a mac – which is quite a difference when your operating capital is hovering around $12.

I’ve known some apple-heads that won’t buy anything unless it’s been blessed by Steve Jobs. However, using a PC does not make me any less of a ‘creative’ than these zealots. A computer is a tool and it’s only as powerful as the mind behind it.

I’m sure I’ll get some comments about how I’m wrong and apples are the best thing since the invention of the wheel, but I’m still not convinced. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch mac commercials as a part of my daily entertainment. 🙂

Related Links

The Cult of Mac Jr

A Video of a Guy Who REALLY Hates Macs

A Blog about Why Macs are the Best Choice

Update: I wrote this post before I took the new job. As my sister-in-law pointed out in her comment, my new job requires me to work on a mac. Oh, the irony.

Humble Thoughts On Blogs, Social Networks, and other New Media Stuff

Last week Geoff Livingston and I participated in Smart Business Ideas(TM) Magazine’s Ready, Set, Grow event where the topic focused around blogs. Since our presentation I’ve been receiving e-mails from those in attendance regarding my opinion on social media. So here it is – humbly submitted, of course.

Who should blog?
Blogging is not for everyone. Keep in mind that although the operating costs are minimal, you still have to invest a significant amount of time to research, write and promote a blog. In my opinion, here are the three things you must have to start a blog:

1. Passion for a subject – I’m passionate about marketing. I could talk about this stuff all day long. To me, it’s easy to find stuff to write about because marketing is a topic to which I naturally gravitate. And you can tell just from reading my blog that this is really my life. My personality comes through because I’m passionate. Now, if I were to write a blog about, say, accounting (not a subject where I naturally gravitate) because someone said I “should” it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect because every time I would sit down to write a post I would hate it. Inevitably (if I had a blog about a subject I wasn’t passionate about) I would try to take shortcuts by reading and repeating what everyone else is saying without interjecting my own thoughts. At that point I would simply be regurgitating instead of contributing positively to a conversation.

2. Time – While the actual overhead expenses of maintaining a blog are (generally) low or no cost, you can’t forget about the time it takes to maintain a blog. Keep in mind there is more to blogging than simply sitting down to write.

A. Research – Reading related blogs so you know what’s going on around you takes time.

B. Writing – Hashing out your idea into a cohesive thought takes time.

C. Editing – Revising your cohesive thought so you don’t sound like a bumbling idiot takes time.

D. Analyzing – Checking your stats, referrals, and understanding what your readers like takes time.

E. Promoting – Registering at Technorati, putting widgets, continually adding to your blogroll, responding to comments and the thousands of other ways you can promote your blog takes time.

If you blog once a week, plan on investing at least 5 hours a week (especially in the beginning when you are getting everything set up) to produce a quality blog. For each additional post per week – add 2 hours. (Oh, and for those people who tell you they crank out a post in 10 minutes – I don’t buy it. Quality writing takes quality time.)

3. Dedication – I really liked how Geoff put it in his presentation last week – “Bloggers must be sharks. Not in the sense that they are aggressive – but in the sense that if they stop swimming, they die. Blogs where the author stops posting die.” With that in mind, you must commit to posting on a regular schedule. Yes, it’s tough – but it’s the way it is.

Facebook vs. Myspace vs. LinkedIn
Social networks are popping up everywhere. Yes, they can be amazing business tools. But they’re kind of like address books – they’re only as useful as the information in it. My advice? Don’t spread yourself too thin. Pick one and go deep. Don’t bother with other ones until you’ve mastered the first. If you’re new at all this, I personally think LinkedIn is designed to be the most effective in a business setting (and is the most intuitive to set up in my opinion). Myspace is more personal. Facebook is a little bit of both.

Widgets, Twitter, Second Life & Other Randoms
This July at the New Media Nouveaux Conference, speaker Brian Williams mentioned how learning about all this new Web 2.0 stuff is like “drinking from a fire hose.” And it’s an accurate description. It can be overwhelming, especially when you feel pressured to participate in every single type of tool available. Here’s how I see it – there are enough new tools out there to keep you busy for 27 lifetimes. So, if the premise of the strategy doesn’t feel right, you shouldn’t feel like you “have to” participate. I don’t use Twitter or Second Life because at this point in time, it isn’t a good return on my time investment. As I said before – it’s more effective to go deep into one tool instead of spreading yourself thinly across many.

I know my opinions are more down-to-earth than most – but hey, it’s what I think. What about you?

5 Myths of Business Communications

Take a moment and think about all the words you send to your prospects and clients – all the content of your website, brochures, e-mails, letters, fliers, blogs, etc., etc., etc. Imagine all the vowels and consonants you’ve used to describe what you do piled high into an ever growing heap of words. Mind-boggling, isn’t it? In business, we communicate…a lot.

The ability to clearly describe what you do, how it is different from everyone else and why your prospects should buy from you is an essential part of the success of any business. From the smallest e-mail to the most expensive advertisement every piece of communication is an opportunity to form an impression in your customer’s mind (A.K.A. your “brand”).

But are we really clear when we write our business communications? Do we accurately convey the points we are trying to make so our prospects and clients can “get” our message? Take these 5 common myths of business communications and test your CQ (communication quotient).

Myth #1 – The more information I can cram in, the better.
Have you ever tried to find a needle in a haystack? It takes a lot of patience. Unfortunately, patience is not something readers of your business communications will have. Simply put, if your message is buried in mounds of text no one will take the time to search for it. Effective business communications focus on a singular message and eliminate everything else.

Do you pass the test?
Show your business communication piece to a stranger and give them only 5 seconds to look at it. Can they tell you the main message?

Myth #2 – If I use big words, people will think I’m smarter.
Prodigious colloquy induces an antipodal consequence. Using big words is like a guy with an expensive sports car – it can be perceived that you are trying to compensate for something. Instead, go for short, clear, easy-to-understand words that you would use in everyday conversation. Your tone will be friendlier and your readers will be more receptive to your message.

Do you pass the test?
Give your business communication piece to a 4th grader. Do they understand every word?

Myth #3 – By using buzzwords, jargon and acronyms I’ll prove my industry knowledge.
You might as well write in Ancient Greek because that’s about how many people will actually understand what you’re trying to say. Acronyms are especially deadly, so if they’re necessary – take the time to spell them out. As for buzzwords and jargon – save them for the water cooler.

Do you pass the test?
Have a friend from an opposite industry read your marketing material. Do they understand it?

Myth #4 – I’ll use adjectives like “best”, “excellent” or “outstanding” to set myself apart.
Have you ever been stuck at a party with a person who just won’t shut up about how great they are? Not only is it annoying – it actually turns you off. Instead of bragging about yourself, gather testimonials and allow your customers to boast on your behalf. You’ll find prospects intrigued and eager to learn more.

Do you pass the test?
Ask your best clients to give you a quote about their experience working with you. Did you replace your boastful comments with their testimonials?

Myth #5 – I’ll write in first person so it won’t be boring.
Most of your readers will have one question in their mind when reading your document – “What’s in it for ME?” That means, using the Y-O-U word – not the I (or W-E) word. Yes, there are times that a compelling narrative story can make an impact. But in general, business communications should be about the client – not about you.

Do you pass the test?
Take a piece of business communication and change “I” and “we” to “you” (also, change the tense of the verbs, etc.). Give both versions to a friend and ask them which is more compelling.

Hopefully by now your pile is a little lighter and your message a bit clearer. By taking the time to crystallize a clear and conversational message you engage your audience with your message. This can lead to longer loyalty, more referrals and ultimately increased revenue – and who couldn’t use that?