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!

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,


Does a Mac Make You More Creative?

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.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Pen Maestro!

brian-and-andrea-for-blog.jpgIt’s official – my little brother’s a blogger. 🙂

You could say our family is just a bit on the entrepreneurial side. My dad owns a power cleaning company, my mom a laser engraving company, I’m a writer and my brother makes custom pens.

Earlier this weekend while we were out to dinner, Brian (my brother) talking rather passionately about his craft.

“Why don’t you blog?” I inquired.

He admitted that the thought really never crossed his mind, but upon doing some research we discovered that his niche is well searched with minimal competition (always a good combo!) and within a few hours my bro became a blogger.

Here are some reasons why I think Brian will excel at blogging:

1. Pure Passion – Brian could talk about pens for hours. He loves this stuff. And as I’ve said before – passion is the #1 ingredient to any good blog.

2. Narrative Writing Style – Brian is a natural blogger because he is able to tell stories from his own life and then extrapolate a universal lesson from his experience. Think Aesop’s fables – what’s the moral of the story?

3. Building a Community – While ulitmately Brian would like to sell more of his custom-made pens because of the blog, his real reason for the project is to create a community with others out there that share his passion. As he puts it, “I’m stuck in the workshop all day. It’s therapeutic to document all of the things I learn and find other people who can benefit from my experiences.”

Click here to visit Brian’s blog “The Pen Maestro”

Click here to visit Brian’s website and purchase some custom pens, wine bottle stoppers or letter openers for you or a friend.

Congrats, Pen Maestro!!

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?

Reduce Social Media Burnout with a Communication Vacation

meditating-businessman.jpgThere’s a lot of buzz around the blogosphere about social media burnout. I blogged about this in April when I first started feeling the fatigue. Heck, if Steve Rubel is starting to see the strain – we know this is for real.

I feel like the pressure comes from several places:

1. So many tools, so little time. Let’s dissect the time it takes to effectively use just one channel of new media: blogs. To make a blog effective, you need quality content. That means time to: 1) come up with a creative & original topic 2) research it properly and 3) write and edit. And that’s just building the content of your blog. Then you compile marketing efforts – such as reading your daily feeds (I have 96 blogs in my reader) commenting on other blogs, tracking stats and reaching out to your readers. Now, add the 18,000 other social networking tools and gizmos we’re supposed to use at an equally engaging level and *poof* – burnout.

2. The need to please. Because social networking involves interaction with others, there is a need to meet their expectations. The best bloggers write for their readers, not for themselves – and knowing that people are depending on you to come up with profound and original content on a daily basis can wear you down.

3. The perpetuation (instead of distillation) of swill. Blogs gain popularity through “link love” which ultimately means people are consistently regurgitating other people’s original ideas. This regurgitation process tends to create a big fat game of telephone tag through the internet. The result is that then, in my research process, I am forced to backtrack through numerous links to track down the original source. These blogs that simply rely on supplying links without providing a thought provoking stance fall out quickly because readers see right through it. This relates back to reason #2 and importance of original and thought-provoking content.

So how do you battle this social networking fatigue? How do you stay plugged in while still creating original and thought provoking content? Why not allow yourself a daily vacation from all forms of media to allow your ideas to percolate?

Dictionary.com defines “vacation” as:

va·ca·tion [vey-key-shuhn, vuh] Pronunciation KeyShow IPA Pronunciation –noun

1. a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel; recess or holiday:

I can say from personal experience that this has been my saving grace. Since April when I began to feel the burnout, I decided to invest at least an hour every day to suspend all forms of communication. This time allows my ideas to mature and the quality of my work has dramatically improved over the past few months.

So what does a communication vacation look like? Silence. That’s right – none of the following:

– cell phone
– radio
– television (I don’t own one anyway)
– internet
– computer
– gaming system
– e-mail

Instead, I do something like:

– sit in traffic with the radio off (I live in DC – so I do this a lot. Not my favorite activity, but it works)
– go for a run outside (without an mp3 player!)
– meditate
– sit at Founder’s Park right by the water and people/duck watch

As a recovering work-a-holic I can attest that as with any addiction, fighting the first urges were overwhelmingly difficult. Similar to when I quit smoking, I found myself having “communication fits” whenever I would try to sit still. But over time, I found that these times are critical to my creative process.

And I’m not alone. A recent article in Inc. Magazine highlighted several entrepreneurs who attribute their innovation to maintaining structured think time. “CEOs who curtail creativity may do so at a cost to their happiness and their businesses” author Allison Stein Wellner states. “Leaders can miss out on innovations as long as they view running a company as the hard stuff and coming up with new ideas as the fun stuff – and sacrifice the fun for the good of the business.”

Similarly, individuals can suffer from being too tied in to social media – feeling all that pressure. That can lead to health issues, family problems, and all the other icky stuff that we hate to talk about. So allow yourself a daily communication vacation. Be at peace in the silence. Allow your ideas to mature. And then come back armed with intelligent ammunition to make your work even better. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go for a run. 🙂

Related Links

Steven Aitchison – Hypnogigia: The bridge to the unconscious

Shel Holtz – Social Media Burnout? Where Have I Heard This Before?

Future Lab – Facebook, Myspace & Social Burnout

Valeria Maltoni – Facebook Ain’t Face Time