Rome vs. today: My thoughts on readers’ access and attention

Tuesday, Dec. 16th 2014

Visiting Rome’s Colosseum made me think about how our ease of accessing reading materials makes us less patient when we read.

Back in the days of classical Rome, people had to work at reading. They didn’t have books lying around their homes — at least not according to the exhibit about libraries that I saw at the Colosseum. They had to go out to reach their reading material at a library or gymnasium. Then, they had to unroll and re-roll long papyrus scrolls written without any punctuation, capital letters, or even breaks between words, according to a Colosseum exhibit about ancient libraries (see “How the Ancients Read” photo).

How the Ancients Read

Click to read “How the Ancients Read” in a larger format.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you imagine reading this blog post under such conditions? I had a somewhat similar experience—in terms of the lack of punctuation at least—when I studied classical Japanese at Harvard way back when. It took a lot of effort to work my way through edicts of the Tokugawa shogunate.

I think that the difficulty of reading in the days of Rome or classical Japan might have spurred me to abandon books even faster than I do now. These days I drop novels that don’t grab me in the first 40 pages. I may not go beyond the first paragraph of a blog that fails to sparkle.Rome Colosseum library exhibit

However, on the other hand, I imagine the scarcity of reading materials in classical Rome would have lowered my standards for what was worth reading and how long I’d read it. When I was a girl, I read all of my brother’s Hardy Boys and many of his science fiction books. They weren’t my favorites, but I was a voracious reader who couldn’t get enough books from the library.

Things sure are different today. My favorite smartphone app is the Kindle app that lets me carry a book everywhere. While it’s great that reading is more accessible, I’m a little sad that this makes reading less of a privilege.

What does the difference between ancient Rome and today mean for you as a writer? It’s a reminder that you must work hard to keep your readers’ attention because it’s so easy for them to take advantage of other options.

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4 reasons you shouldn’t write a white paper

Tuesday, Dec. 9th 2014

White papers can be great marketing tools. Done right, they give web surfers reasons to join your email list and persuade them that you understand—and have solutions to —their white paperproblems. However, done poorly, white papers waste your time—and your readers’ time. To help you avoid pointlessly sinking your energy into white papers, I’m sharing 4 reasons you should not write a white paper.

Reason 1. You haven’t identified the right problem.

White papers should solve a problem faced by members of your target audience, as I explained in “White paper marketing: Walk a fine line.” This makes them compelling to your readers. It also helps your white papers get found, as readers conduct online searches for “how do I…?”

A problem and a topic aren’t the same thing, as I showed in “Which investment white paper would you read?” “Small-cap stocks” is an unexciting topic, while “How to profit from small-cap stocks” solves a problem faced by readers who seek to boost their investment returns.

If you don’t know how to identify a good problem, listen to questions your clients and prospects ask you. You can also seek their input through social media, surveys in your e-newsletter or on your blog, or other methods. Identifying your reader’s problem is a key step in the writing process that I describe in Financial Blogging: How To Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients

Reason 2. Your white paper focuses on your company’s products or services

Your readers seek objective advice. If you inject your company’s products and services throughout your white paper, you lose credibility because readers view your piece as an advertisement. They quickly stop reading. Respondents to my “Walk a fine line” survey agreed that references to your company’s products and services should be limited to the end of your white paper.

Reason 3. You lack data to support your points

While blog posts can be opinionated rants, white papers typically feature data or examples to support their points. This is an area where larger companies have an advantage over smaller firms because of their data generation and analysis capabilities. They’re also more likely to have a budget to license data from providers such as Ned Davis Research.

Larger companies don’t always win in this area. For example, I’ve seen some firms generate original content by interviewing members of their target audience.

Also, there’s good publicly available data. However, please be careful to credit your sources and observe the rules of copyright “fair use.” Not sure about what’s fair use? Check the resources in “Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion.”

Reason 4. You can’t write in a reader-friendly way.

Today’s readers are impatient. If you don’t write about a compelling topic in a way that’s easy for them to absorb, they’ll quickly stop reading. For tips on how to make your writing more reader-friendly, see “5 steps for rewriting your investment commentary.”

Anything else?

I’m curious. Can you think of any additional reasons why you shouldn’t write a white paper? For examples, do you think that the less formal approach of an e-book, which I discussed in “E-book or white paper: which is better?”, would better suit your audience?

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Guest bloggers: 2014 in review

Thursday, Dec. 4th 2014

Looking for marketing and writing tips from diverse experts? Check out the posts from my 2014 guest bloggers listed below!

Blog

Marketing

Social Media

Writing

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Time to think as a writer’s technique

Tuesday, Dec. 2nd 2014

Is taking time to mull over your topic one of the best things you can do to succeed as a writer?

the art of readable writingThe following quote from Rudolf Flesch’s chapter on “The Shape of Ideas” in The Art of Readable Writing set me to thinking:

Every professional writer knows that this period of just-sitting-and-thinking between legwork and outline is the most important part of the whole writing process.

I know that I write better when I let the ideas marinate in my head before I write. Distance from the content gives me perspective. As Flesch notes in a different chapter, “… the unconscious mind is so much better at combining ideas in a novel way. It puts together things that we would never put together in our ‘right mind.’” However, simply walking away from the material may not be enough. In “The Shape of Ideas,” Flesch suggests two ways to jumpstart your thinking.

1. Tell someone

Flesch suggests that you talk through your topic with a member of your target audience. Your goal should be to figure out one sentence or phrase that captures your main point. If you do this, “Everything else will arrange itself around this one sentence or phrase almost automatically, says Flesch. In other words, the sentence becomes like a “elevator speech” for your writing.

I think talking things through with a member of your target audience is helpful because they add a perspective you lack. They’ll tell you what really interests them. They’ll also cue you into words or concepts that you need to explain better.

2. Write about a “typical person” or common theme

“Whenever you’re writing about a group or an organization, … focus on a typical member of the group. Start by describing him (or her) and go on from there,” suggests Flesch. You can use this technique to organize your thoughts. For example, you could write about a typical member of a 401(k) plan. Flesch warns that you should be careful to pick someone who’s truly typical, instead of a flashy outlier.

If you’re not writing about a group, look for some other common denominator, suggests Flesch. It could be an event that’s a turning point or some sort of theme

My take on finding the key idea

If you lack the time to mull over your topic—and if Flesch’s ideas don’t apply—what can you do?

My favorite approach is to draw a mind map of my ideas for the piece, whether it’s a blog post, white paper, or even a book chapter. Mind mapping is a visual, non-linear brainstorming technique that I discuss extensively in my book, Financial Blogging: How To Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients and in posts on this blog, such as Photo + Mind Map = Blog Inspiration. I felt as if mind mapping saved my sanity when I wrote complex articles with a dozen or so sources for trade magazines. The birds-eye perspective offered by mind maps helped me find patterns in the apparent chaos of data.

If mind mapping doesn’t appeal to you, try freewriting, which I also discuss in Financial Blogging. Basically, you write for a limited period—perhaps 10 minutes—about whatever pops into your head on your topic. Then, you pause to analyze what you’ve written. This should help you to find themes.

What works for YOU?

Different techniques work for different people. If you’ve found a great technique that I haven’t mentioned here, please share it.

I like it when people share things with me. I discovered Flesch’s book because Doug Tengdin (@tengdin) told me about it. Thanks, Doug!

 

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

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Spelling tip: When in doubt, close it up

Tuesday, Nov. 25th 2014

wired styleSpelling challenges many of us. To make things more complicated, correct spelling changes over time, as discussed in the “Anticipate The Future” chapter of Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age.

I like the rule proposed in this chapter:  “When in doubt, close it up.” The authors suggest that instead of separating or hyphenating newer terms such as “videogame” or “desktop,” close up the space to spell them as one word.

The book gives three reasons for doing this.

  1. “The way of the Net is not a hyphenated way.”
  2. Save a Keystroke is another style commandment rooted in the way of the Net.”
  3. “We know from experience that new terms often start as two words, then become hyphenated, and eventually end up as one word.”

Another reason to “close up” commonly used terms is to make them easier for the reader to absorb. In the financial realm, I write “outperform” instead of “out-perform,” as I’ve discussed in an earlier post.

Of course, you shouldn’t close up every new term. Remember, the rule says “When in doubt.” To keep yourself from going overboard, google the term to see what spelling is most common. You can also look at trusted role models, such as The Wall Street Journal. I did this when I felt tempted to write glidepath as one word. I ended up keeping the two words separate, bowing to popular usage.

What words would YOU like to close up?

 

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

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Financial website writers, match headlines to content or lose readers

Tuesday, Nov. 18th 2014

Your web pages should deliver on the promise made by your headlines. That doesn’t happen in the economic commentary example shown below (with company name blacked out).

Economic commentary example

Click on the image to view an easier-to-read version.

 

Let’s look at what went wrong, so you can avoid these mistakes.

1. Most of the paragraph is unrelated to the headline

A Wall Street Journal report about bank surcharges has nothing to do with the headline topic of “Emerging Markets Continue Impressive Growth While Developed Markets Continue Recovery.” Emerging markets don’t enter the picture until the last two sentences of the paragraph.

2. Too-long paragraph lacks WIIFM and topic sentence

The paragraph is so long and dense that it’s likely to scare away all but the most motivated readers. Writing for the web demands that short chunks replace massive blocks of information. The content doesn’t explain its WIIFM—what’s in it for me. To catch busy readers’ attention, you need to make it clear why they’ll benefit from your content. For example, will you help them to understand why emerging markets’ growth will outpace that of developed markets, making them an important component of a diversified portfolio? The example in the image above fails the WIIFM test.

The paragraph also lacks a strong topic sentence that introduces its overall topic. To me, it reads as if a person saw an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal and spouted reactions off the top of his or her head, and then moved on to a Financial Times article and, finally, a thought about the emerging markets.

3. The graph isn’t supported by the text

The “World Economy — Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” graph in the web page’s image doesn’t relate to the accompanying text. A good writer would have related the headline and the graph in his or her text, instead of rambling about banking.

How to fix this page?

Fixing this page would require one of two approaches. First, throw out all of the text, except possibly a revised version of the last two sentences, and create new content focused on the growth of emerging vs. developed markets, as shown by the graph, other data in the clickable link, and other evidence.

The second approach would require throwing out the current headline and graph to focus on the implications of the Fed’s capital surcharge. The banking text would need a drastic rewrite to become more focused and less flabby.

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Writing sensitively about tragedy in your investment commentary or blog

Tuesday, Nov. 11th 2014

TragedyTragedy strikes more often than you’d like. It could be an event like the initial Malaysian Airlines plane disappearance, the Boston Marathon bombings, or something that happened in your community. Discussing tragedies can bring us closer together. It can make stale topics timely. However, it can also offend and disturb your readers, as discussed in “‘Epicurious’ Enrages Followers With Boston Bombings Tweets” on the Mashable blog or “This Guy’s Replies to 9/11 Brand Tweets Sum Up Everything That’s Wrong With 9/11 Brand Tweets.” You need to tread carefully. I have some thoughts about how to manage this challenge.

1. Acknowledge the tragedy

Before you dive into the bottom-line implications of the events, acknowledge that it’s a tragedy that affects human lives. You might write something like “We are all hoping for a happy ending in the disturbing case of…” or “We are deeply distressed by the…”

2. Consider your context

Context matters. Let’s consider three scenarios for writing about airline stocks the day after the March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Scenario one: Airlines analyst for a buy-side investment management firm

When you’re a securities analyst, writing about events that move stock prices is an essential part of your job. You can’t avoid it. Plus, if you’re a buy-side analyst, what you write will stay within your firm (unless you speak with the press). This gives you more freedom than writers who communicate with the general public. Your audience needs to know what effect an airlines disaster will have on the stocks you follow. In fact, it would be irresponsible to ignore the potential impact.

Still, you don’t want to be seen as gloating over an investment opportunity created by a tragedy. That’s ghoulish.

Scenario two: Wealth manager writing a client newsletter

When you write a newsletter for clients, you’ll have a feel for their sensibilities. Also, you’ll know what they expect from you—whether it’s coldly objective analysis or a warmly personal take on news that affects their finances.

If your clients value objectivity and data above all, I believe you can discuss the bottom-line implications of the tragedy after a quick acknowledgment of the sad event’s effect on people’s lives. Still, there may be more sensitive folks among your readers. Think about whether you need to discuss the tragedy now. If your newsletter discussion would be just as relevant later, then consider waiting.

Scenario three: Writer of a blog for general consumption

You’re at the greatest risk when you publish your thoughts in a medium, anyone can find online, such as a blog or op-ed piece. Tread carefully. Consider how you would feel if you or your family experienced the tragedy in question. Acknowledge that this is a serious event that hurts people. Be especially careful if you’re publishing where you’re likely to be read by people directly affected by the tragedy.

3. Consider the timing

Writing about a tragedy as it unfolds is different from writing about it six months or even one week later. Feelings are most raw in the early days. You must balance these emotions against the fact that whatever you write—especially if you’re an analyst covering securities that are directly affected by the tragedy—may be most valuable in those early days.

4. Get a second opinion

Not sure how your piece will be perceived? Ask someone you trust and respect for feedback. You’ll get the most helpful feedback from someone in your target audience, especially if they’re candid.

Depending on their audience, you may decide that an event is too painful for them to read about at this point.

YOUR opinion?

How would YOU like financial authors to deal with tragic events in their writing? I’m eager to hear your thoughts and insights.

(By the way, I’d like to thank the participant in my presentation to the Baltimore CFA Society who asked the question that sparked this blog post.)

 

Photo Credit: mharrsch via Compfight cc

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Free help for wordy writers!

Tuesday, Nov. 4th 2014

Wordiness is a curse. Long-winded writing obscures your meaning and scares off readers. However, many writers don’t realize that their writing is dragging on and on.

A free online tool—the Hemingway App—can help you recognize when your sentences are too long. Hemingway highlights sentences that are too long. It also suggests some ways to improve your writing. You could identify long sentences using your word processing software, but Hemingway is easier to use.

I’ll walk you through an example of how to use Hemingway.

Step. 1 Drop your text into the middle of the Hemingway page

Hemingway home page

This is the Hemingway home page. Your first step is to highlight and then delete the text in the middle column.

Entering your text into the Hemingway is a little more complicated than I expected, but it’s worth the effort. First, click to select all of the colored text in the middle column that starts with “Hemingway App makes your writing bold and clear.” Then, hit “delete.” You’ll see a blank space in the middle of your screen.

Next, either type or copy-paste in the text that you’d like to analyze. As soon as you drop in your text, Hemingway will analyze it.

 

 

Step 2. Look at Hemingway’s grade level analysisHemingway Grade 17

Look first at Hemingway’s overall rating of your text. The image to the right says the sample below is written at a grade 17 level. You may think, “Great! My clients are sophisticated, so aiming at a graduate-school level is fine.” Think again. Grade level measures how hard you’re making your reader work. Do you want your readers to struggle or to easily absorb your message?

Direct marketers aim for grade level eight. On its home page, Hemingway shows grade seven as “good.” You might be able to hit that level in a personal finance blog post, but it’s too hard for more formal financial communications that discuss technical topics. I figure I’m doing a good job if my client materials hit grade level 10.

Your grade level gives you a “big picture” indication of how hard you should work to simplify your writing.

 

Step 3.Review Hemingway’s assessment of your sentence length

Hemingway will color code your text according to its wordiness, as you’ll see in the example below. Red means a sentence is “very hard to read” because of length, as in the first sentence in the image below. Yellow isn’t as bad, but it’s also too long, as you can see in the sample paragraph’s second and third sentences.

 

Hemingway analysis of ECB sample

 

 

 
 

 

 
 
 

 

 

Step 4. Start simplifying

Hemingway also uses highlighting to suggest some simple fixes by using fewer adverbs and simpler words or eliminating the passive voice.Hemingway suggestions

Hemingway’s suggestions are just a starting point. Complex sentences require a re-thinking of the content. That’s what it took for me to go from the sample paragraph above to my rewrite below:

Prices of riskier investments rose in response to recent proposals by German and French leaders, but we are skeptical that this will continue. Investors seem to believe that the proposals will strengthen the euro zone by capping bond yields. This would make euro-zone bonds more attractive to private investors. However, success would require the European Central Bank (ECB) to use strong language or to boost its daily purchases of the troubled countries’ debt by at least €5 billion. To convince distrustful investors will require strong action. That may be more than the ECB can achieve.

If you’d like to learn more about shortening and simplifying your complex sentences, check out my publications and my presentations for do-it-yourself tips. I also edit materials, typically for larger firms with bigger budgets.

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E-book or white paper: which is better?

Tuesday, Oct. 28th 2014

“What’s the Difference between an E-book and a White Paper? (And When Should You Use Them?)” is the title of a chapter in Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, E-books, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman.

content rules ann hadley cc chapmanIt’s a great question. Sometimes what one person calls a white paper, another calls an e-book. I agree with the author’s statement that the main differences are in style and tone. A white paper is typically more formal and data-oriented. However, some people might call the exact same piece a white paper, while others call it an e-book.

The kind of e-book that Handley and Chapman discuss is, as they say:

  • “Broken into smaller chunks”
  • “Visually heavy main text is supplemented with callouts, bulleted lists”
  • “Casual and collegial; a conversation among equals”

In my opinion, you might lean towards a white paper if you have lots of original data and are addressing an audience that prefers a formal style and has an appetite for detailed analytical support of your statements.

On the other hand, an e-book (at least the kind of e-book created as a marketing tool, as described by the authors) might be better if you want to portray yourself as a friendly person who presents information in a way that’s easy for regular folks to absorb. An e-book will be less technical than a white paper. It may be better  for selling to consumers than businesses.

Personally, I prefer communications that combine the best of white papers and e-books as described above as they help their readers to solve a problem.

Your opinion?

How do you see the difference between white papers and e-books? I imagine that some of you have different opinions. For example, Chris Koch, editorial director at SAP, referred to “an e-Book, an insight-rich short slide deck” in “Don’t Kill the White Paper Just Yet” in Chief Content Officer (August 2014), p. 45.

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

______________________________________________________________________

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Famous quotes make your commentary memorable

Tuesday, Oct. 21st 2014

It’s hard to make your investment commentary stand out. After all, everybody’s writing about the same facts. However, adept use of quotes can make investment commentaryyour commentary memorable.

For example, here’s how The Wall Street Journal’s “Ahead of the Tape” column started with a quote from the Bible (Matthew 20:16) on June 30, 2014:

Similarities between Scripture and financial markets are rare, but one verse seems to be a recurring theme: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

The writer, Spencer Jakab, explained the quote’s application in his column’s second paragraph.

Pundits and investors alike have a tendency to extrapolate the recent past into future expectations. That often is a recipe for disappointment.

The rest of the column discussed examples of Jakab’s theme. For example, commodities, which disappointed in 2013, were rebounding at the time of his article. Readers may remember Jakab’s quote—and the related lesson—long after they’ve forgotten which asset classes lag or outperform.

The column concluded by circling back to the Bible, saying “to everything there is a season,” a reference to a famous passage from Ecclesiastes. Nice symmetry there!

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