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!

On becoming a web “triple threat”

Tap Dancer

Believe it or not, I started school pursuing Classical Voice. My dream was to be on Broadway (it’s still on my list of things to do before I die). The only problem? I’m not a great dancer.

You see, to really make it on Broadway, you need to be able to sing, act, AND dance. Two out of the three won’t do. If you’re deficient in one area, that means countless hours of practice just to get up to par. I just wasn’t willing to invest the time, and so I changed my major to Marketing. Smart move, I think.

The same idea of a “triple threat” applies to the web. A web site or application is made up of three main areas: Content, Design, and Development. As clients demand more and more sophisticated sites, and as the web experience becomes more integrated (think mobile), it’s more important for those of us in the web field to cross-train in the different disciplines. Yes, it’s hard work, and countless hours, but this time, I’m excited about it!

Here are some of the resources I found most helpful while I was learning. Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

Content

Design

Code/Development

    Lynda.com (yes – they get a plug twice, it’s that good)

Image Attribution:

10 Tips for a Kickass Wanted Ad

Here’s a great example of how to write a job description that works. I found this on Andy Sernovitz’s blog (a must have on your RSS feed if you ask me.)

Benifit-driven conversational copy gets you noticed.

10 Reasons why it works:

  1. The first word. You. Not me, I, we or any other form of the first person. You. It grabs the reader’s attention and makes your message relevant.
  2. Conversational tone. “Here’s the deal” is a great opening line. It closes the gap between the writer and reader. It makes your reader feel like they’re face-to-face, and opens an emotional bond. And in advertising, that’s a powerful thing.
  3. Clear benefits. Your reader wants to know, “What’s in it for me”. Give them clear and meaningful examples. Andy does a great job here with, “You will become a rock star with badass contacts. We will find you a job when you graduate.”
  4. Name dropping. Works every time. If you have the clout and the contacts, make it known.
  5. Edgy. Yes, this ad uses words like “shitwork” and “badass”. But it works here because of the audience. It makes your ad stand out amid a sea of corporate babble. Just make sure that you have the corporate culture to pull it off.
  6. Authentic. There’s no guessing that this job will require a lot of effort and work. In fact, they come out and say “You will be exhausted.” But transparency and honesty about the job (especially early in the process) just make you more credible.
  7. Keywords instead of tasks. “Blogging, Youtube, Social Media, Viral, Word of Mouth…” describe what the job is about without saying what the employee will be doing on a day-to-day basis. This helps ensure that qualified candidates won’t self-select out because they perceive they’re under qualified.
  8. Short & Simple. At just over 100 words, this ad packs punch. In just a glance and a quick scan, you clearly understand what Andy’s looking for and whether or not it’s a good fit for you. No need to drone on and on. We’re all too busy to read useless information.
  9. Written for the audience. This ad might not be the best fit if you were trying to find a more senior position, but for an intern, the edgy and conversational tone is perfect. This is how 19 year olds speak. Write how you (and your audience) speak.
  10. Clear call to action. “How to apply: blow my mind” (love this!) followed by three websites where you can learn more. Clear next steps are critical for increased response.

What are your thoughts? Is this an effective Wanted Ad? Or did it cross the line? Would you apply? Would you pass it on?

To your success,

Andrea 😀

Use Twitter to Make the Most Out of Your Next Conference

As a former sales professional, I’ve attended my fair share of conferences. It’s usually ended up being a game of networking roulette—working the room hoping you’ll bump into someone with whom you have synergy. It’s a professional gamble. Sure you’ve made connections; but were they the most strategic, or the most convenient?

Today, I’m heading to Boston to attend the Inbound Marketing Summit and it’s the first time I’ve used twitter before attending a conference. I have to say, I’m impressed with the potential. Here are some ways I’ve used twitter as a tool to make the most of my meetings for the next 3 days.

1. Follow the hashtag.
If you’re organizing a conference, hashtaging is a must. It allows attendees to mark tweets as relevant to you. Without it, you’re missing out on a big portion of the conversation. Attendees, use a twitter aggregator such as Tweetdeck (desktop) or Hootsuite (web app) to easily follow the conversation and see who else will be there. The hashtag for the Inbound Marketing Summit is #ims09.

example of conference conversation via twitter (hootsuite)

example of conference conversation via twitter (hootsuite)

2. Are you on the list?
Earlier this month, TweepML launched a Twitter Group Service, allowing users to create their own lists.  I found this tool indispensible, as I was able to add and follow over 50 other people who are attending the conference with just one click! To get on the list, simply contact the administrator of the list and ask. (“Pretty please with a cherry on top?”)

3. Reach out and tweet someone (pre-networking).
Once you’ve made some connections, it’s time to use them! Start by looking at the bios of your new contacts. Is there anything you have in common? If so, use twitter just like you would if you were in the room. For example, I found out that @InnovateMarCom is another avid karaoke fan. With just a couple tweets, we struck up a conversation. Now, when we meet in person, the connection will be much richer (even if Boston lacks a karaoke scene).

Even if we can't plan a karaoke outing, chances are Nichole and I will have a great conversation.

Even if we can't plan a karaoke outing, chances are Nichole and I will have a great conversation.

I’ll be arriving in Boston around 7pm tonight. Looking forward to a great conference and meeting all these wonderful people in real life. Safe travels everyone!

What’s Your City’s Icebreaker Question?

Each city has one. The get to know you question that EVERYONE seems to ask. Be it baby shower or a business networking event, you’re bound to hear it from someone.

In DC, be prepared to answer “What do you do?”

Some people find this a materialistic and status probing question. I did too at first. There’s something a little intimidating that automatically rouses your defenses when you feel like you’re being judged. But after years of living in the city, I found myself asking this question not because I was curious of someone’s occupation, but rather their activities.

Washingtonians are renowned for their go-go-go (when they’re not in traffic) mentality. I think this question is more a reflection on the active nature of the culture, rather than a direct inquiry about someone’s professional life. Often, I would receive a reply of hobbies that would segue and blossom into a conversation about common interests.

“What do you do?”

“You know, recently I’ve been really into Salsa dancing. I’ve been going on Monday nights to the Clarendon Grille and met some really great people!”

“Really? I love salsa dancing. I’ve been to the Salsa Room, but never the Clarendon Grille. What time do lessons start?”

When I moved to Richmond last November, one of the first things I noticed was the complete lack of  “What do you do?” In fact, if I asked it, people seemed insulted, and it took me a while to navigate the icebreaking etiquette of this smaller southern town.

In Richmond, you’ll be asked “Are you from here?”

Richmonders are all about a sense of history and roots. Growing up 20 minutes north of the city, I remember not being considered “from here” because my parents moved here when I was 10 months old. Most of my classmates had generations anchoring them to this region, while I wasn’t even born here.

I think another reason it’s a popular question is that so many people (like me) grow up here, move away, and then move back. If you grew up in the area, there’s an immediate sense of camaraderie and more detailed questions that follow (i.e. “What high school did you go to?”)

If you grew up outside of Richmond, the standard follow-up seems to be “So, what brought you to Richmond?” I ask this often because I’m amused at why people settle in such a seemingly obscure place.

So, what’s the icebreaking question in your town? Have you noticed a trend in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco, Boston, or another metropolis? What about across the pond? Do Europeans have an opening question? Eager minds want to know and would be thrilled if you left a comment below. 🙂

Twitter Translated from Geek Into English

twitter_logoTwo years ago I posted how twitter was a “complete waste of my time”. No one I knew used it. Searching was clunky. They didn’t even have a model to generate revenue (still don’t).

But the tipping point has arrived. It caught my eye in the form of an article from ClickZ titled “Twitter Surpasses Facebook as Top Link in Email.” Really? What! That silly little tweeting thing actually has value?

Indeed. That same article linked to a report that linked deep social engagement to revenue and profit. A big part of that “deep” social engagement is Twitter. All 4 case studies in the report (Starbucks, Toyota, SAP, and Dell) use Twitter as a key piece of their media strategy.

So it’s clear — there’s a benefit. But now what? What are some ways the average Joe/Jane can use Twitter…without feeling overwhelmed? As a self-professed “non-techie”, here are some ideas and resources for you, along with answers questions you probably have.

How does Twitter work?
You have 140 characters to answer the question “What are you doing right now?” Your response is called a “tweet.” If you provide interesting content, people will want to “follow” you. This means that whatever you post shows up on their homepage. Getting followers is a good thing.

What makes my content interesting?
Genuine content = interesting content. Being authentic = intriguing. If you’re too self promotional (or heaven forbid, a spammer) no one will want to follow you. In fact, you’ll be shunned. I find interesting content to be: 1) a link to an article or blog post (tinyurl.com will be your friend) , or 2) a peek into your expertise or personal life

Why do people care what I’m doing?
Two reasons. 1) Connection. People gravitate towards people who are like minded. Having stuff in common is the first step towards forming a connection.  2) Curiosity. It’s like when you’re traveling through a neighborhood and people have their windows open. You look. Not because it’s creepy but because you’re curious. Plus, the open window invites you. It gives you permission to glance, but not stalk.

Isn’t it just a bunch of nonsense and noise?
Nope. It’s a way to meet people who you might actually like, enjoy, do business with, get a job from, be entertained by, or gather information from.

Here’s an example:

My brother Brian (@GouletPens) makes Pens for a living. He went to a directory of twitter users called wefollow.com and typed “pens” to find people who were also passionate about pens. He started following @Dowdyism, a “pen addict extraordinaire”. @Dowdyism noticed Brian and started following him.

Now, you would think that these two pen fanatics would bond over their writing instrument obsession, but that’s just what got them in the door. They corresponded over Wii. Here are the screenshots:

Brian posted this to Twitter

Brian posted this to Twitter

and then, a few minutes later…

...and dowdyism (a potenital influencer for Brian) responded

...and dowdyism (a potenital influencer for Brian) responded

It’s a connection that probably wouldn’t have occurred if Brian had used DM, email, TV, radio, or another traditional marketing channel. But now, looks like he’s in.

What are all those crazy RT, @, and # things all over the page?

RT – This is a Retweet. It’s something that someone found on another twitter page. Let’s say Amy posts a really useful article. Ben sees it and knows his followers would really enjoy reading it, too. Ben copies the tweet, but inserts RT @Amy (or whatever her Twitter name is). Why do this? 1) It’s polite. It also shows transparency (which is a very good thing in social media). 2) It let’s Amy know her tweet was helpful to you so she is a) more likely to tweet more about that and b) sees who her biggest fans are.

@ – This links a twitter screen name.  If you start your post with @soandso, the person who has the screen name “soandso” will see your message, and it will show up as a tweet on your home page (but not on all your followers). You can also send someone a direct message (if you follow each other), which is kind of like a shortened form of email.

# – This is a hash tag. It’s sort of like a keyword so you can sort by categories. This helps you organize and find information more easily. According to Wild Apricot,

Hashtag etiquette is still evolving, so let good social manners be your guide. It is a rare “tweet” that deserves a hashtag, so tag only those updates that you feel will add significant value to the conversation. One hashtag is best — two are permissable — but three hashtags seem to be the absolute maximum, and risk raising the ire of the community. Tag sparingly, and with careful discretion.

How do I find people to follow?

Here are several ways:

  1. When you sign up for Twitter, it can automatically port your contacts from Gmail, Yahoo! or AOL. Mighty convenient and worth taking the extra 20 seconds during setup.
  2. You can also click “Find People” in the top right corner when you’re signed into twitter.
  3. Check out a twitter directory. There are several. If you need to find some, just google “twitter directory”. The best (to date) is wefollow.com.
  4. Click on who’s following you — right under your picture in the top right of the sidebar. Is there someone interesting?
  5. Click the @yourscreenname link just below that. This will show you tweeters who have mentioned you in one of their tweets.

Yikes, people I don’t know are following me….what should I do?

Step 1: Don’t freak out. You don’t have to “open the window” any more than you’re comfortable. If you don’t feel okay sharing something on Twitter, then don’t. It’s that simple.

Step 2: Remember your role. You’re publishing and sharing content for people to read. If you wrote for a magazine, people who you didn’t know would read your article and maybe write a letter to connect with you. Twitter lets you do the same thing. You publish content that you find valuable, and people who find it interesting read it, subscribe so they can read more, and might even contact you to comment on it.

Step 3: Adjust your privacy settings. If you don’t want people who you don’t know to follow you, go to Settings and click “Protect My Tweets”.

Step 4: Block spammers. If someone is spamming you, or you don’t want them to follow you, block them. Show ’em who’s boss.

How often should I tweet?
Tweet when you have something you want to share or say. Don’t just tweet to hear yourself type. Remember, this about connecting with people, not shouting about how great you are. You can ask a question, link to an article, or type a musing…it’s up to you. Expert tweeters post anywhere from 1 – 20 times per day. More than that, and you’ll start clogging your followers feeds. That annoys them.

Resources:

Here are some places I went to learn what I posted here  (thanks Sean, Carmen & Marvin for helping me find these!):

http://business.twitter.com/twitter101

http://www.businesspundit.com/10-essential-twitter-tools-for-business/

http://www.cio.com/article/492019/Twitter_Bible_Everything_You_Need_To_Know_About_Twitter

http://followontwitterlists.com/

Happy tweeting!

Oh, you can follow me if you’d like. @andreagoulet

Flesh Out vs. Flush Out — Either way it’s disgusting

Recent conversation with co-worker:

Me: This has been a great brainstorming. I’m going to go back to my desk and flush out some of these ideas.

She: Sounds good. Wait. Did you just say ‘flush out’….that always makes me think of a toilet. Ewww…I’m pretty sure you meant ‘flesh out’.

Me: ‘Flesh out’? No. I don’t think so. That makes me think of a deer carcass that someone is skinning. I’ll take the toilet image over mangling Bambi any day.

So what’s the correct answer?

Here, here, here, here, here and here say that the correct idiomatic expression for “adding details to an idea” is….drum roll….flesh out. Looks like I was wrong on this one. (groan.)

But wait!

Here, here, and  here, indicate that flush out means to “bring something that is hidden to the surface” (search this term on Google and you’ll find all sorts of strange references from hunting to earwax.)

So….

Here’s some rationale for using “flush out” for specific writing tasks (because I simply can’t concede that I’m wrong):

As a copywriter, my job is to go through a big thick creative brief, brainstorm 50+ ideas, and then bring the best parts to the surface so the message is no longer hidden among the rest of the unecessary details. Therefore, I “flush out” the concept.

Totally up for debate. What do you think?