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 Tactics for Top-Notch Testimonials

Testimonials – the magical way to turn boasting into evangelism. Sure, they’re effective – and their use is hyped in every corner of marketing communications. But just how do you go about gathering them? Here are 10 ideas:

1. Have something worth talking about. Having a mediocre product that simply meets expectations encourages silence. People talk about something that is either 1) really awful or 2) really amazing. The closer you are to the middle, the less chatter you hear.

2. Put a feedback button on your website. Encourage your customers to send you their opinions – regardless of whether they’re “good” or “bad”. In truth, they’re all good.

3. Give to get. The networking organization BNI hypes the benefits of “givers gain”. And it’s true. Give colleagues a well-written testimonial and ask for one in return.

4. Use LinkedIn. Log in to your LinkedIn account and under the “Service Providers” tab at the top left click on “Request a Recommendation”.

5. Paraphrase & e-mail. When a client gives you a verbal testimonial, send a friendly e-mail thanking them for the conversation, paraphrasing what you heard and requesting permission to use their testimonial.

6. Give stories the spotlight. Weight Watchers encourages participants to submit success stories. Stories sell. Bragging bores.

7. Market research sweepstakes. Give respondents a prize for completing a survey about your company. Prizes encourage response rates.

8. Ask for specifics. When writing a survey, break down large, open-ended questions into bite-sized, directive questions which are more likely to receive a response.

9. Give credit. Did a great idea come from customer submitted feedback? Share the credit to entice readers to share their opinions.

10. Strength in numbers. When requesting testimonials, ask for quantitative data. For example, “After hiring Randy, my profit increased by 20%” or “Gina helped reduce my production time from 2 weeks to 3 days.”

Related Links

Fastread: How to Get Testimonials for Your Product by WorkatHomeChannel

How to Get Quality Testimonials by Mike Williams

5 Tips for Getting Freakin’ Awesome Testimonials by Brent Hodgson

The Amazing Technicolor Networking Jacket

andrea-and-her-technicolor-networking-jacket.jpgIn the ten years I’ve been in sales I’ve attended a lot of networking events where a lot of people stand around in black suits. Black suits are safe. Black suits blend in. Black suits don’t get noticed. There’s nothing wrong with wearing a black suit, just don’t expect anyone to remember you.

A few months ago I was browsing through one of my favorite department stores when the loudest, most brightly colored jacket caught my eye from across the room. It was so bold that several sat on the clearance rack for a whopping 75% off. It was almost as if you could hear the voices of the people who had picked it up prior saying, “there’s no way I could wear this – I’d stand out too much.”

Suddenly, I had a thought. If this jacket could stand out among racks of other brightly colored clothes, imagine what it would do in a room full of black suits. I found my size, tried it on and was pleasantly surprised at how well it fit. It seemed to perfectly embody the image of the “fun, young, hip, creative chick” look that I was going for. Bingo.

So it’s been three months and here’s the result. I’ve worn this jacket 4 times to networking events (considering I go to 3 -5 events per week, that’s not very often). Yet, I’ve had the following experiences:

  1. A friend of mine gave me a pair of earrings she had that “just seemed to match that jacket of yours perfectly.”
  2. A fellow networking professional remembered me as “the girl in the bright colored jacket I met last week.”
  3. A colleague confessed that she thought of me and my jacket when she purchased her shirt.

Proof that it’s working – this jacket helps me not only stand out in a crowd, but people remember me more afterwards because of this jacket. Association and recall are two goals of any branding effort.

So where is your technicolor jacket in a room full of black suits?

  • If everyone else uses words like “innovative”, “quality”, “turnkey”, “synergy”, and the other overused business phrases do you opt instead for a genuine and conversational tone to your writing?
  • When every other IT service firm is using blue corporate colors and pictures of politically correct people for their websites are you being bold with bright colors and custom illustrations?
  • If every other financial services professional is focused on pushing a product do you flat out say (and mean it!) “I do this because I’m passionate – not because of the money. I do this because my clients become friends for life. I want to grow with them and be involved in helping them grow. If you’re looking for someone to simply transact on your behalf, I might not be the fit for you.”

Keep in mind that markets change and shift. People catch on to a good thing. In time your once bright jacket begins to blend in. In which case, a black suit just may stand out against a room full of color.

Related Links

Be Remembered at Networking Events

16 Ways to Make Your Business Card Unforgettable

Scarcity Matters

How to Get Your Name in Print

market-square-in-alexandria.jpgEver wondered how people are chosen for feature articles in the newspaper? Here’s how it worked for me.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my “satellite office” at Market Square in Alexandria, VA. I go here on warm summer days because the granite benches surrounding the water fountain have power outlets right next to them. With my Sprint Broadband service and my power outlet, I have everything I need to work productively. And, might I add, the scenery calms me down and makes me appreciate my life as an entrepreneur.

During the lunch-hour, this place gets pretty packed, and strangers pass by, look at me and remark, “You look like you’re actually working – wow, I wish I had your job!” On this particular afternoon, a gentleman sat down on the bench next to me. He inquired as to the nature of my job and I replied that I was a “freelance writer and marketing consultant and I focused on Online writing like websites and blogs.”

Turns out this gentleman was a reporter with the Alexandria Times. We carried on for a bit with a conversation about the difference between “old media” and “new media”, I mentioned my involvement with the New Media Nouveaux Conference and we casually exchanged business cards.

Fast forward two weeks and I see in my inbox the following e-mail:

Hi Andrea, it was nice meeting you the other day. I want to write an article about you and blogging – what do you think? Let me know when is a good time to sit down and interview you – maybe at Starbucks or out on the market square like when we met the first time.”

So, if you want to get your name in print, be prepared to:

1. Do something different. Reporters need an angle – something actually worth reading about. If you’re doing the same-ol-thing as everyone else your chances for an interview are slim.

2. Have a tight elevator pitch. Be prepared to explain exactly what you do, how it is different from everyone else, in bulleted benefits and in less than 15 seconds.

3. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. You never know who you are going to meet. Networking is not reserved for places with nametags and an open bar.

4. Be yourself. Reporters (make that most people) can tell when you’re being authentic vs. when you’re being a flack. People like to work with people who are genuine.

5. Follow up immediately. If the media calls to ask you for an interview, drop everything you’re doing and reply right away. Otherwise, they will move on to somebody else.

Related Links:

Execupundit.com – Make it Pithy

Modern Magellans – Elevator Pitching

Scott Ginsberg – 10 Different approaches for your 10 second commercial

PR Squared – Pitching in Public

Toby Bloomberg – Relationships are the New Currency

Conversation Agent – Media as Connectors of Ideas and People

Social Media Overload – Is Your Brain Fried Yet?

The New Media Nouveaux Conference has been a magnificent catalyst for conversation.

nmn-toby-bloomberg-and-geoff-livingston.jpgGeoff Livingston gave an insightful introduction to new media – citing case studies from his upcoming book, Now Is Gone.

He started by mentioning the impact that social media has on today’s society. Being in the Northern Virginia area, the audience is intimately aware of the change that viral video had on the fall Senatorial campaign. George Allen was literally the front runner for the US presidential seat – however, after the “mecaca” disaster, his career is over, the Virginia senatorial race was radically changed (I know I changed my vote because of the incident), and ultimately the shift of power in Congress changed from Republican to Democrat. So yes, this stuff matters.

The main focus of Geoff’s talk was how pervasive social media is on our society and how it enforces a culture of transparency and honesty. It is an opportunity to engage your “community” (Geoff doesn’t believe in the word “audience” because it gives the perception of a one sided conversation), get immediate feedback and implement innovative business strategies immediately.

He referenced GM as the first fortune 500 blog and how the CEO responds in video format to comments posted on the blog.

Southwest airlines also demonstrates how the comments of a corporate blog can change the course of a business plan. After Southwest posted a blog about how they were planning on changing their strategy and move to assigned seating, they received over 700 comments against this change. Southwest listened to their consumers, took them seriously and created more brand loyalty because of their response.

Businesses Who Are Using New Media

new-media-nouveaux-jen-sterling.jpgThe first panel, led by Jen Sterling from Hinge (an award winning professional services branding firm) focused on the business impact of using new media.

Jill Stelfox, CEO and Cofounder of Defywire told the story of how her 13 year old son has had an influence on how her company uses new media. Defywire focuses on software and technology to keep children safe in school crises. After producing several videos on how to keep children safe (ex: how to prepare your kindergardener for their first day of school). The initial marketing strategy was to produce these videos to DVDs and distribute via mail. Instead, at the suggestion of Jill’s son, the videos were put on YouTube and as a result, Defywire has built a strong viral message that has spun new product lines and increased business.

Kim Hart from The Washington Post gave insight on how the traditional media relies on new media. Let it be known – this is straight from the horse’s mouth – the press release is dead. It does not work. Journalists are so busy, they do not have time to read a story with spin. Instead, a quick e-mail (literally a sentence or so long) with a link to a new story is the best new-media-nouveaux-business-panel.jpgway to peak this journalist’s interest. She also gave insight as to how the success of a story may not be a “traditional article on page D4 in the business section.” Now that more people are on blogs and the participation level is increasing exponentially, a company may very well have more success with a short blog post that can create viral buzz than they would in print.

Pamela Sorrensen, an active blogger on DC’s social scene showed how you can turn your passion into a profitable platform. Her blog was created after friends requested updates of her intense social life. She constantly attends parties and events, rubbing shoulders with the who’s who in the area. Her blog allows her to share her pithy posts without sending individual e-mails. Now her fans come to her and her readership is such that she can earn money from advertisements.

Strategists – How to Use Social Media

new-media-nouveaux-andrea-morris1.jpgOk, so I wasn’t able to live blog this portion because I was the moderator. The panel consisted of Alice Marshall from Presto Vivace, Qui Diaz from Ogilvy PR, and Jennifer Cortner from EFX Media.

This was an interactive discussion of not only the panel, but the audience (wait – I mean community) as well. We discussed strategies for how to blog, whether or not to use Facebook or Myspace, how the government is using wikis, why del.icio.us is a great tool, how you can use videos and podcasts to promote your business, and the all important question – how to avoid burnout.

new-media-nouveaux-specialists-panel.jpgAt the end of the fast paced discussion, Success in the City founder Cynthia De Lorenzi came up with the brilliant idea of creating a regional networking event digging deeper into each social media initiative. Be sure to check the calendar at successinthecity.org to learn when these events are happening.

What’s coming Next?

So this is the big question – what’s going to happen in the future. Although no one has a crystal ball, New Media Nouveaux featured the next best thing – a panel of experts who have their collective fingers on the pulses of the social media industry.

Sean Gorman from FortiusOne is the innovator of GeoCommons, a Web 2.o tool that allows users to create interactive visual maps.

Here are his definitions of the evolution of the Web:

  • Web 1.o – Read – Brochure like websites with a one-sided point of view
  • Web 2.0 – Read & Write – People can respond to information through comments and links.
  • Web 3.0 – Read, Write & Execute – Driven by massive amounts of data. Most of this data is housed in the government level. Governments are notoriously slow in investing in technology – so this is a large roadblock to overcome. One example is how you can househunt. In web 1.0 you would view pictures online and research crime statistics, schools, and community resources on individual websites. Web 2.0 allows you to blog with individuals who live in communities and get feedback on their lifestyle. In web 3.0, Sean predicts applications that will allow you to enter all of your preferences for a community in one location. Then, the program will go out, automatically aggregate your requests and arrange the data in an intuitive manner.

new-media-nouveaux-futurists-panel.jpgHe referenced the movie Minority Report is an example of where we can look to. For example, if you walk in front of a billboard, it will create a customized campaign based on your past purchase history. Technology will be more than mobile, it will be an integral part of every person’s daily life (even more so than today).

Aaron Brazell is the Director of Technology at B5 Media and his professional blog, Technosailor is highly regarded in the industry. Aaron referenced an experience that demonstrates the influence bloggers have.

A friend ordered a laptop and realized that he made a mistake on which shipping option he chose. HP gave him the run-around and pointed him into walls and dead ends. Aaron took matters into his own hands and wrote a blog post called “HP Gives Consumer Middle Finger“. The post ended up on the front page of Digg, the negative comments from the community flooded in and as a result, Aaron’s friends issues were suddenly resolved.

In Aaron’s opinion, Web 3.0 is “becoming untethered from your computer. Right now I’m tied to a 17″ monitor. With the introduction of the iPhone (although I will never own one) it will force competitors to innovate and create new mobile devices.” He also referenced smart homes, where you can walk into a room, say “it’s cold in here” and the smart network automatically interprets and executes the function of turning up the heat.

Place your bets now – Aaron gave predictions of Sink & Swim companies to watch for.

Companies that will sink:

  • Yahoo! – especially because of their recent corporate challenges (losing their CEO)
  • Myspace – the developers are growing up and becoming more mature. The application is also too widespread with little niche value.
  • Mahalo – A search engine that harnesses the power of humans. Aaron believes this technology is “very 1998”.

Companies that will swim:

  • Facebook – especially since they just opened their application to development – new plugins are going to create an ultrarich content.
  • Concept Share – allows you to put graphic images, videos, etc. that allow you make comments and collaborate. Estimates this company will be acquired by Google.
  • Twitter – While I agree that the concept of “micro-blogging” is a new wave, I think Pounce will outpace Twitter – especially since Pounce allows you to upload files, links, images, etc.

Brian Williams is the CEO of Viget Labs, a full-service web consulting, design and consulting firm who touts clients like Brittney Spears and Kenny Chesney.

Brian pointed out how younger audiences are less concerned about privacy issues as older generations. As more data is collected on individual users (ex: Amazon.com and their recommendation system) more customization will occur.

One member of the audience (damnit – I mean community – I’ll get it eventually) posed this question – What advantage does the US have in this industry, are we a leader? Brian’s response: “We are a country built around innovation and entrepreneurship. Look at YouTube – this is a new age of kids in their garages and new applications can be built with the collaborative brainpower of few individuals. You’re not limited by resources – people who we have yet to hear from are going to be the superstars.”

new-media-nouveaux.jpgLessons Learned

One of the biggest lessons I learned from this conference is how varied social media strategies can be. While a blog may be the best strategy for one company, a viral video initiative may be what works for another. It was also apparent just how new all this new media is. Even the experts are on their toes trying to keep up with the constantly changing technology.

I can’t wait for the next event, which closing keynoter Toby Bloomberg called, “one of the best social media events I’ve attended.”

I’d agree. Cheers to a great event and all the excellent panel experts.

Want Word of Mouth? Try This.

cherrick-at-j-gilberts.jpgBeing good is not always a good thing. Good is doing what’s expected. Good is standard. Good is everyday. Good is okay. Good is same-ol’, same-ol’.

Good gives me nothing to talk about.

Being great gives me something to blog about.

Meet Cherrick, a manager at J. Gilbert’s in McLean, VA who transforms a good restaurant into a great restaurant (although my friend Jen swears that the Hickory Salmon makes them great too.)

Last week I attended a networking dinner where nine entrepreneurs sat down for an evening of relaxed networking and casual conversation. Cherrick approached the table and explained the rules of “the game”.

“Name any two celebrities who have been in at least 2 films since 1975 and I will connect them right here in front of your eyes in 7 steps or less.”

Needless to say, the game acted as an excellent icebreaker among us as we searched for the most obscure celebrities we could think of.

Eventually, we settled on Bob Denver and Mandy Moore.

Cherrick, after thinking for about 2 minutes announced his connections:

– Bob Denver was in Cannonball Run with Burt Reynolds
– Burt Reynolds was in the Longest Yard with Adam Sandler
– Adam Sandler was in 50 First Dates with Drew Barrymore
– Drew Barrymore was in Charlie’s Angels with Cameron Diaz
– Cameron Diaz was in Very Bad Things with Daniel Stern
– Daniel Stern was in Home Alone with McCully Culkin
– McCully Culkin was in Saved with Mandy Moore.

Impressed, the table immediately began chattering about which friend they were going to bring back to J. Gilbert’s to try and stump Cherrick. Bingo! More customers, more loyalty, more money for J. Gilbert’s – and it didn’t cost a dime out of their marketing budget.

Andy Sernovitz had a great post last week on the rising importance of word of mouth advertising. In fact, his entire blog is dedicated to the subject. If you’re looking to boost your viral marketing efforts, take two minutes right now, visit his blog and add him to your reader. You’ll be glad you did.

Make your hard work work hard for you.

Twenty years ago intellectual property was a different beast. Creators would put a big chain link fence around their work and say bluntly “back off!” to anyone who tried to spread their ideas.

Today, the landscape has changed. I remember sitting down with one of my clients to discuss her blogging strategy. I mentioned a quote I heard from I believe Seth Godin, but please correct me if I’m wrong – “Blogs are a way to create conversation, not control it.” With that in mind, the strategy becomes referencing other blogs, commenting often, linking strategically and sprinkling in your own opinion.  This new philosophy was one my client didn’t really get. She became concerned with bloggers stealing her ideas or being hunted down by the copyright police if she linked to another blog without their permission.

This is a fine line we walk. Andy Sernovitz posted some excellent insights into this topic.

“‘What if someone steals our stuff?’ is the wrong question. Ask ‘How can we get people to steal our stuff?’…When we advertise, we pay to spread our content. Don’t stop customers from doing it for free!” 

I have to say I agree with Andy. Make your ideas useful so your clients will spread the love. Of course as Andy points out, “Do insist that your content is properly credited, with a link to your site, but beyond that … encourage the sharing.”

As for blogging, it’s proper etiquette to link to the other blog when you are quoting (like I just did with Andy). You need not ask for permission ahead of time – that’s a part of the culture we’ve created. Linking helps them grow their blog. They will be glad you’re sharing their ideas with your readers. You would be hard pressed to find a blogger that says “No – I must protect my intellectual property. I don’t want your link.”