Write better copy with patience and a thesaurus.

July 14, 2021

A meme featuring bilbo baggins with text about using patience and a thesaurus copywriting

If you’re looking to write better copy, I hope you possess patience.  Because that’s really what it takes:  patience and a thesaurus.  Here’s how those two things combine to make you a better writer.

First, what do I mean by “copy?”  For the purposes of this post, I mean the broadest possible definition of the word:  quite simply, any text in any form.  This includes ads, social media posts, email messages to colleagues, texts to friends, cover letters for job applications, and much more.  Literally ANY text.

Second, here’s a fact about writing:  shorter is always more effective because attention spans are limited.  What do I mean by “shorter?” I mean using the fewest words possible to articulate your point. Many folks set out to articulate their point.  But they don’t also strive for doing it in the shortest possible way.  Achieving both of those two goals simultaneously is neither quick nor simple.

I do NOT mean that your overall copy length can’t be long.  Heck, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is 870 pages long and I was glued to that book until the very last word.  But that actually proves my point.  J.K. Rowling is a master at descriptive, precise writing that evokes imagery with the fewest words possible.  870 pages from her doesn’t feel tedious.  Were she not such a master at this, it likely would have taken more than 1,000 pages to tell the same story, and THAT would be tedious.

The point is…you could zip through writing copy without investing the time to precisely articulate your words in the shortest possible way.  Maybe you used three sentences to communicate something that could have been said in one sentence.  Or you used a four-word-phrase instead of a single word because it came to mind first.

If you write your copy that way, here’s what you’re doing:  you’re putting the burden of time on the reader to sift through all the extra words to arrive at your point.  That likely matters less when you’re texting with a friend about your favorite TV show.  It matters a LOT when you’re trying to persuade a reader to do/think/feel something.

So, especially if you’re in marketing, you need to be the one who assumes the burden of time in writing.  The more time you take to make each piece of written communication shorter AND effective, the less time the reader is forced to invest in embracing your point.  If you make it too cumbersome for them, they’ll just tune out or move on long before your point has been embraced.

That’s where my advice of “patience and a thesaurus” comes in.

Nouns and verbs all have connotations.  These nuances give additional descriptive power to a single word by *slightly* altering the feeling/imagery it evokes.  For example, there are 44 different words in thesaurus.com to describe something as “difficult.”  So if you’re using that word in writing… do you mean – say – ambitious, problematic, arduous, immense, or challenging?  All of those words could be classified under the heading of “difficult,” but each one also nods to the reason why something is difficult. And therefore, each one tells a different story.

And that’s the secret right there.  You need to employ patience and a thesaurus to identify words that – by their very connotation – help you articulate the story you’re trying to tell.

Here’s an example I see a lot in the tourism marketing strategy work we do.  A lot of organizations use the term “boundaries” or “parameters” in conjunction with big plans, projects, and initiatives.  Those terms are meant to describe guidance given as the work proceeds to prevent straying from the plan.

But it’s possible in many cases that what the organization really means to describe are “guard rails.”  Boundaries and parameters imply limits and fences around the whole project, whereas guard rails connote a limitless, unobstructed path with some assistance to keep things moving forward.

Figuring out whether boundaries, parameters, or guard rails tells the appropriate story just takes patience to think it through and, if necessary, a thesaurus check for more precise options.

In a more marketing-oriented example, look how the connotation of the experience you’ll have differs depending on the verb chosen:

  • You’ll be amazed by your experience.
  • You’ll be delighted by your experience.
  • You’ll be inspired by your experience.
  • You’ll be transformed by your experience.
  • You’ll be tickled by your experience.
  • You’ll be giddy from your experience.
  • You’ll be left breathless by your experience.
  • You’ll be hypnotized by your experience.
  • You’ll be enchanted by your experience.
  • You’ll be moved by your experience.

All of those are far more descriptive than saying “you’ll have a great experience.”  That’s because “great” tells no descriptive story other than having a vague positive connotation.  I call it an empty word, and you can see why you should stop using it here.

You can also find four really great powerful tips to strengthen your writing here.

Even the word “better” in this blog post’s headline isn’t an ideal word choice.  “Better” is a nondescript, vague term that could benefit from a more descriptive upgrade.  In this case, it could be:  Write more persuasive copy.  Or write more effective copy.  Or write more descriptive copy.  Or compelling.  Or potent.  Or -ooooohh – how about irresistible?  There’s something delicious about evoking the vibe that your copy is something people can’t resist reading.

But alas…this is a blog post.  And “better” is a more appropriate choice to match searcher intent (not many folks are searching for “how to write irresistible copy”).  SEO writing is a whole different ballgame, so if that’s your goal, you should also check out these tips.

Your new year’s resolution? Better alt text.

January 13, 2021

OK, so this may not be the sexiest or most popular new year’s resolution, but here’s why it should make your list.

First, let’s be sure you understand what it is.  We’ve found through our consulting and digital marketing work that very few people DO understand it, even those that are responsible for writing the alt text on their own brand’s website.

Alt text – short for alternative text – is the text description applied to images on websites (and social media, but that explanation is for another day).  This isn’t the same as a caption, which can appear on your website with the image so that anyone can instantly see the words.  The alt text is hidden from the front-facing website and doesn’t appear unless it’s needed.  Think of it like writing a description on the back of a real-life photo that’s sitting in a frame.  When you look at the photo you can’t see the description, but if those details are needed, you can get them.

Now… when would such additional hidden details be needed?  Because if you’re looking at the photo on a website, you can clearly see what that photo is about… right?  Nope.  Not always.

The hidden text is vital in these three ways (all equally important):

  1. It gives search engines a full description of the photo, which makes it easier for search engine algorithms to see and understand images.  Using alt text on your website images means that a search engine can more easily find your photos and then show your website and/or images to people searching for relevant things you offer.
  2. When images on websites don’t load properly – when there are connectivity and/or internet strength issues, for example – the alt text will appear instead, so at least visitors know what you were trying to show.
  3. For those with vision impairment issues, or those who use screen readers for any other reason, the alt text is essential because it describes photos that the user physically CANNOT see.  A screen reader, if you didn’t know, is a program that reads content on a webpage aloud, and the alt text allows the screen reader to give information about the visual aspects of the page.  And by the way, ADA Compliance actually requires this of websites, so you might as well do it right.

Now, why won’t a caption suffice for all this?  Technical aspects aside (and there are some), the biggest reason is because a caption isn’t necessarily a proper description of a photo.  For example, here’s me trying to decide between my top two vices (since we’re talking about resolutions and all):

Chris Miranda holds prosecco bottle and coffee cup while deciding which to drink while giving a webinar.

The caption for this photo might be:  Chris decides between two vices.  But the alt text would be something like:  Chris Miranda holds prosecco bottle and coffee cup while trying to decide which one to drink while hosting a webinar.

So that takes us back to your new year’s resolution about committing to better alt text.  When you’re ready to dive in, here are nine brief but helpful tips for writing effective alt text.

And you can drink prosecco OR coffee while you read that article… no judgement here.

Looking for other ways to make your website easier to read and more accessible?  Choose your font and typeface wisely.

Words matter, but so does the font you choose.

November 5, 2020

A graphic of the word typeface using a magnifying glass.If you’re not a graphic designer or branding specialist, your experience with choosing typefaces is likely limited to the little dropdown box at the top of your screen, where you select from fonts like Arial, Universal, Comic Sans, and the whimsically-named Wingdings.  You may not even realize that a typeface is a design of lettering (i.e. sans serif), and fonts are variations within each particular typeface (i.e. Arial or Calibri).

Further, you probably choose your font for documents and emails based on your own personal preference of what you think “looks good.”  Is it pretty?  Professional?  Strong?  Does it reflect your personality?  Does it set you apart?  Or is it just the default font used by Word, Outlook, etc. and you never give it a second thought?

But in marketing and branding…typeface and font matter A LOT, and they can’t simply be based on your personal preferences.  Therefore, it requires a bit of knowledge to make wise choices.  Why?

First, because accessibility and legibility are essential in marketing, and not just because laws and the ADA say so.  There’s a large group of folks out there with poor vision, learning disabilities, and reading/comprehension issues, and you’re ignoring that entire audience if they don’t have access and the ability to comprehend your messages.

But second – and as importantly – the world is full of clutter and speed, which has reduced people’s attention spans to mere milliseconds.  Why would you risk wasting a precious point of contact using a typeface or font that’s even a tiny bit difficult to decipher?  You’ll lose ‘em, fast.

So here are eight super-smart tips for choosing your typeface and fonts wisely when designing your logo, brand identity, website and more.  This articulate gent Gareth Ford Williams succinctly details – in an easy 10-minute read – what you should consider.  And if psychology bores you, just skip right to the list of eight things you need to know:

A Guide to Understanding What Makes a Typeface Accessible

I guarantee after reading this, at the very least, you’ll forever beware of the mischief that “imposter letter shapes” cause.  Sneaky little buggers.

Got your typeface and font all sorted?  Now try these Four Quick Tips to Strengthen Your Writing.

How to make directions idiot-proof.

October 19, 2020

Whoever thought that watching someone try to follow written directions to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich could be so hilarious and entertaining?  Click the image to watch:

father daughter and son laughing over a peanut butter and jelly sandwhich

The dad’s deliberate insistence on following EXACTLY what was written feels absurd to watch… but only because we all know he knows how to make a PB&J.  His brain can certainly fill in the gaps in direction, and the direction writers just assume that he will.

But what about someone who’s never seen nor heard of a PB&J?  Or even a sandwich?

That’s how guests feel when your directions and instructions aren’t specific enough.  What kind?  Stuff like…

  • Directions from the nearest highway to your property
  • How to control the thermostat in the hotel room
  • How to connect to wifi
  • How to use any sort of mechanical or technological item in the room
  • How to set the *#$%@ alarm clock
  • How to get to various local attractions nearby

Basically, any time you’re telling a guest how to do anything, it’s just so much easier on them – and better customer service – if you’re specific to the point of absurdity.  You can’t assume they will use GPS (or that it will work well in rural areas), or that they’ll use their phone to be self sufficient for everything they need.  So spoon feed them every step of the way.

Because there are so many things you can’t control in their total experience… why risk causing frustration on something you can control?  Need more convincing on this?  See what happens when you don’t make enough chocolate chip cookies.

 

The power of 15 minutes.

June 14, 2018

15 minute stop watch

Tell me this hasn’t happened to you:

You have something important to write…could be a sales pitch, press release, email newsletter, note to your boss, marketing program, ad copy… anything. It may not even need to be lengthy – just important in some way. So, you sit down to your keyboard at the precious time slot you’ve squeezed out of your packed to-do list and you force yourself to begin typing. And then…

You type a few words. Backspace over them. Type a few more words…keep going… then backspace over all of them too. Then you stare at your monitor trying to focus, while your to-do list sends invisible smoke signals to your brain, reminding you that you DON’T HAVE TIME for backspacing nonsense…you’ve got a ton of other things to do, and you’re running out of the window you’ve allotted to write this damn thing and youknowwhatyouwanttosaysowhywon’tthewordsjustflowout#*%#@?

People. Chill out. In reality, you DON’T know what you want to say, and that’s the trouble. You know what the assignment is, but you haven’t decided how to approach it. And so you sit down to write before mapping out a game plan…and then you freeze because you’re about to start the car for a road trip, and you have no idea where you’re going once you pull out of the driveway.

Here’s a tip that will make writing less painful and more productive. Before you write, sit quietly for 15 minutes and just think about what you’re planning to write.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. When was the last time you sat quietly in your office for 15 minutes and did absolutely nothing else? Not check email, scan your list, get sucked into social media, read something, jot down 15 things you remember you wanted to add to your to-do list… literally just do nothing but think. To very busy people, 15 minutes of complete stillness feels like a jitter-inducing eternity. And in a way, it is. It’s 25% of an entire hour.

Sitting still and thinking for 25% of an entire hour – when there are 200 tasks awaiting your attention – could, at first glance, seem like squandering productivity. Not so. In fact, investing that quiet time in thought will actually UNLOCK your productivity and make your writing more effective.

Try it. 15 minutes may feel like an eternity, but in reality, it’s not a lot of time. You probably squander that every day without even being aware of it… chatting about reality TV, tracking the progress of the #mprraccoon, reveling in historic sports moments like Justify winning the Triple Crown or the Caps FINALLY winning a Stanley Cup… maybe even just checking out your favorite Instagram dogs.

But see the pattern? All of those things feel like “doing something.” Somewhere along the way, “thinking” lost the right to be considered “doing something.” Reinstate it. You won’t be sorry.

Want more writing tips? Here…we’ve got a few.

What makes you ding-worthy?

May 17, 2018

So…I feel a bit like a soulless drug pusher on this one, but hear me out, ok?

A growing issue is causing serious angst in today’s society:  people are addicted to their phones and they know it…and they don’t like it. There’s a movement afoot for these addicts to “resist the ding” and wean themselves from craving the need to keep checking their phone. And the psychological battle cry of “how to take back control” is a hot topic at business conferences, therapy sessions, family dinner tables, relationship counseling, and in mainstream media.  If this is news to you, here are two useful articles on the subject from NPR and Psychology Today.

But it’s a marketer’s mission to cut through clutter and get attention. And so we ruthlessly hunt for standout ways to infiltrate their phones: emails, text messaging, location-based promotions, social media (organic and paid), social media direct messaging, and <insert shiny marketing-tool-du-jour here>.

We WANT to be the ding that gets their attention. We WANT them to stop what they’re doing and embrace our message.

But think of the psychology:  more and more people are taking control of their own “ding dial,” fiercely curating which dings (if any) get their immediate attention, and – whoa – even turning off the dings completely in order to neutralize messages that masquerade as urgent.

Worse (for us)…in an effort to reduce the overwhelming daily assault of information through intrusive dings and silent accumulation, they are more discriminating in scrubbing their access points.  This means YOU (soulless, message-pushing marketer) are being judged continuously, and you are always just one frivolous ding away from getting banished.

So here’s what you need to ask yourself, marketers:  what makes you ding-worthy?  And you can’t do this effectively by looking at a single message’s value (i.e. this post, this email). You need to respect your role in the relationship with people’s phones and your value in their overall information landscape.  What earns you the right to continued access?  How do your dings foster Pavlovian-level satisfaction?

I’ll tell you the answer:  always-relevant content, and choosing frequency wisely.  Quite simply…don’t waste their time (or mental bandwidth) and make every ding meaningful.

Is this harder for you?  Yep. Does this mean you have to care more about THEIR needs than YOUR sales goals?  Yep.  Is this annoying because now you have to think more, and sometimes resist sending messages you REALLY REALLY want to send?  Yep.

But here’s the alternative:  would you rather be banished?  Because that’s what’s at stake now more than ever.

Marketing was never effective when it was too frequent or too frivolous. Desensitization and annoyance have always been at risk. But back in the day, those risks just wasted your money and time. People may have gotten annoyed, but they hadn’t yet – en masse – felt empowered to do anything about it.

But these days, technological assault has made people feel like victims and addicts, so when you annoy them, they not only feel empowered to banish you…they do it with a sense of righteous justice. Kicking you out of their phone grants them a joyous feeling of liberation.

And so yay for you, marketer!  You created a positive encounter with your target. The downside is that it came from them slamming the door in your face…and locking it.

So what’s the moral of this story?  Don’t ignore this growing social phenomenon, and adapt your approach accordingly.

In short:  Please ding responsibly. 

Five opening lines that sabotage your email’s success.

March 16, 2018

You want people to read your emails, right?  Then be mindful of these two powerful words:

PREVIEW PANE.

That little teaser allows people a glance at your email’s content before they open it, which makes your first sentence vital.  It can either hook interest and make readers want to open it instantly, or it can say nothing worthwhile and prompt them to triage its importance for another time (if ever).  This actually holds true even if the recipient is NOT using preview pane… who gets jazzed about reading an email with a boring opening line?

Here’s a hard truth:  most people begin emails with boring sentences simply because they’re being lazy.  It’s a crutch for warming up to writing what they REALLY want to say… a way to get their fingers moving on the keyboard.  But the fact is, you’re doing your email a huge disservice by overlooking the importance of your opening line.

Here are five of the most common “wasted” opening lines:

I hope you are well.
My name is (x) and I’m the (x) of (x) company…
I wanted to write you today to…
I am pleased to attach the document…
Hope you’re enjoying this weather!

Why are these lines wasted?  Because they’re either stating the obvious or making irrelevant small talk.  You may indeed truly hope the person is well, and you have my blessing to say that… at the end.  And you may indeed be pleased to attach that document…but who cares?  Perhaps instead, say why the document is/should be important to THEM.

Yes, it takes longer to come up with a compelling opening line (and please, for the love of Pete, please don’t start with the word “I”).  But it’s worth it.  I may not know you, or anything about you and your email recipients, but I’d bet the ranch that you’d rather have folks open your emails than glaze over them or just hit delete.

Bonus writing advice:  also be wary of the word “great,” using exclamation points, and the request to have things sent to you “ASAP.”  Check out these and other quick writing tips here.

 

The key to making a business announcement successfully.

June 28, 2017

Say you’ve just overhauled your guest service program.  Or completed a design renovation.  Or created a new HR program in response to staff issues.  Or launched a new brand.  Or website.

And then you sit down to write the email, press release, or speech to unveil it to your key audiences.  Here’s the one vital tip you need to make it effective and powerful:

No one cares how hard you worked.

Think about it. How many times have you heard a brand or company representative say

  • We’ve worked tirelessly to…
  • Our team has worked long and hard to…
  • We’ve been working day and night to…

Does that make their message any more meaningful to you?  Nope.  In fact, a few hard truths about human nature conspire to subtly undermine the successful reception of your announcement:

What’s In It For Me?:  Saying how hard you worked is blah-blah to the audience.  Your dedication is irrelevant…what’s the result that impacts them?  Wasting air time with blah-blah just risks losing their attention.

Skepticism Trigger:  The moment someone draws attention to how hard they worked, we subconsciously doubt it.  If you truly worked hard on something, the results would prove it.  Proclaiming it just makes the audience wonder why you’re trying to hard to convince them that you did your job.

Soliciting Gratitude is Resented:  Revealing how hard you worked – especially when you’re fixing a negative situation – only makes it look like you’re seeking a head pat.  And only adorable dogs can credibly get away with begging for head pats.  In humans, it usually just inspires exasperated eye-rolling.

Instead…just share your news straight up, including the benefits to them.  Like so:

On the new Redpoint website, you can explore our expertise with easy one-click sorting relevant to your needs, catch our company vibe instantly through photos and videos, and listen to music from our office live concert series.  Go check it out…we hope you find it fun and useful.

See how easy that was?  Now please DO go check out our new website…because it’s fun.  #ResistTheHeadPat

 

Your belly button is a marketing tool.

November 5, 2015

Consumers suck, don’t they?  They need to be rewarded for everything…liking things, sharing things, buying things, answering things.  It’s maddening.

Well marketers, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  We’ve conditioned people to chase carrots and respond to hoopla…which means we’ve ALSO conditioned them to ignore stuff that’s boring, predictable, trite, and unrewarding.

Where does this leave email subject lines?  At the top of your “spend brainpower here” list.

Think about it…all the time and energy you spend creating the perfect email content is 100% for naught if people don’t open it.  And when sifting through the barrage of daily incoming emails, consumers use three main criteria to determine which ones will get their attention:

  1. How much they care about you vs. how much they care about the rest of the senders sitting in their inbox.
  2. How much time they have available when your email arrives.
  3. Is the content going to be worth their time?

And #3 is why subject lines should get your brainpower.  If your marketing email subject lines are things like “August Newsletter” or “News from (company name)” or even something a little more specific like “Winter Packages at (company name)”… you are relying on the first two criteria – which are beyond your control – to supply the magic open sesame of consumer response.

But if your subject line is something like…

We don’t make linen. (Chilewich, a textile company)

I hate purple. (Also from Chilewich)

The ecosystem of your belly button. (American Museum of Natural History)

Have you ever wanted to create a chocolate sculpture? (South End Kitchen, VT)

Get serenaded by Harry Connick, Jr. (Hotel on North, MA)

…you’re using the subject line as a lure to snap desensitized recipients to attention.  It’s likely that 80% or more of the emails they receive each day have boring subject lines.  Make yours interesting and you’re one notch closer to seducing them into hearing your message.

Here’s the best part.  If you pay heed to #3 (teasing interesting content)…and then you actually ensure that the content IS interesting…over time, it’s going to positively impact #1 and #2.  Remember: marketers train consumers.  And the more you train them that your emails are interesting, the more that #1- they will care about you and your messages, and #2- no matter when your email arrives, they will make the time to read it.

It’s a delicious cycle of persuasive marketing goodness.  And soon you will find that consumers – those picky, aloof, what’s-in-it-for-me monsters we marketers have created – will suck just a little bit less.

Four quick tips to strengthen your writing.

February 5, 2015

Writing is a skill that needs practice, just like your golf swing or your skiing technique.  However, unlike golf or skiing, very few people devote their Saturdays to grammar and phraseology.

Here’s the equivalent of installing a putting green in your office.  Work these four tips into your everyday writing, and give those stagnant brain muscles a workout.

Stop beginning your sentences with “I” or “We.”  You’ll be surprised how often you do it, and making this one tiny change will enhance the power of your message.  Here’s why and how.

Choose descriptive words that pack a stand-alone punch.  There are – give or take – a million words in the English language.  It’s a safe bet that “great” can always be replaced with a more meaningful word (get some help on that here) and the words “very,” “really,” and “extremely” are unnecessary; very happy = ecstatic, pleased, delighted, and so on…extremely upset = livid, furious, incensed, and so on.

Condense wordy phrases into compact ones…or better yet, into a single word.  This reduces the burden on your reader’s attention span and illustrates your point with instant clarity.  For example:

Coming at the wrong time = ill-timed

Covered with decorative elements = ornate

Make this process smoother = streamline

Almost ready to put the finishing touches on = poised to complete

Hard to find = elusive

Aspire to cut your document length by a third.  This measuring stick will serve you well:  in any first draft, at least a third of the words are poorly chosen.  That’s because it’s really hard arduous to write and edit at the same time simultaneously.  Keep your thought process intact while the words flow, and then attack your phrases with a critical eye afterward.

I hope you find these tips useful.

Reprogramming your writing style using these four tips will take awareness, patience, and a thesaurus.  Keep practicing, buy a red pen, and eventually new habits will form.