From the first resume I created fresh out of college, I have promoted my ability to communicate. "Strong written and verbal communication skills," it read, bulleted to stand out. And it's true that, whenever I take an inventory of my strengths and weaknesses (ahem... areas where I could improve), I consider my ability to communicate, persuade, entertain, and amuse a strong check mark in the positive column. This has always been the case.
Still, I know without a doubt that I am a more effective communicator now than I was in my twenties. So I found myself wondering recently what has changed. Certainly, over a couple of decades, my self-confidence has grown and that helps. I also have more life experience, so I have more to communicate. And I have more wisdom, so I'm better able to understand what my goals are when communicating and less likely to give in to the egotistical need to be "heard" or "right."
However, these have more to do with peripheral issues that are connected to communication and less to do with the nuts and bolts. So what's truly different? What has changed?
To address this question, let me outline a process and see if it sounds familiar. You have an assignment to create an ad, press release, blog post, video, etc. It is your job to communicate something, but you don't know what. So, you set up a meeting with your client to discuss the details. The client tells you what he or she wants and you head back to your office to execute on that direction.
"This product is going to be huge," the client might have said. "We're all really excited about it and our CMO is totally committed. Nobody is doing anything like this, so we'll gain market share quickly, which means we need a campaign that really communicates all that and hits it hard!"
This process is universal. It's also misguided... at least a little.
We've all been in a meeting like this. And the client is being absolutely truthful about his motives, which are to sell a lot of product, make a lot of money, and get credit for doing a great job. This is his passion. It's what he thinks about before he falls asleep at night. He's got a lot riding on it and is probably completely incapable of being objective. Unfortunately for you, the communicator, this person's motives are not relevant to your job.
Herein lies the difference, the "what" that has changed. When I have a task like this in front of me now, I strive to understand the motives of the audience, not the client. Know your audience. This advice is as old as communicating itself. The audience's only motive is to get the best consumer experience they can for the least amount of money. As the communicator, it's your job to understand all the complex factors that go into the audience's consumer experience (which often has nothing to do with logic, especially when it involves a strong consumer brand) and whether they perceive it as outstanding, subpar or something in between. And that can be difficult because you can't call a meeting with the audience. You have to work harder, and put more thought into it. The client's thoughts are low-hanging fruit; the audience's thoughts are near the top of the tree and you have to work harder to get to it. But the fruit at the top is bigger, juicier and tastier, so it's worth the effort!
So how do you do this? I'll address that in my next post. For now, though, ask your client to talk about their customer, once they're done talking about their product. Take some time to get lost in thought, pretending that you're one of your client's customers and ask yourself, what would make you respond. And do some research on the Web.
Only then can you craft a message that addresses the motives of the consumer actually doing the consuming. This will yield a message that is far more relevant to the audience, and your client will be rewarded with more sales and stronger responses.
Years ago, I worked for a boss who simply was not a good writer. Spelling, grammar, and vocabulary were not this guy's strengths, even though he was very smart in his business. That's why he made a very smart decision: he had me write all his important emails, and proof many of the less important ones.
It's not fair, actually, that bad spelling and below average writing can make the writer of an email seem less intelligent or sloppy with details. In fact, in business communications, writing is a skill, like needlepoint or juggling. Indeed, a writer may also have an intuitive understanding of language and some creative flair, but for a business email, the skill of writing is what's most important. Unfairly, though, it's probably the only such skill that can have this kind of a negative impact on your personal brand.
So why is it that someone who is not good with numbers, someone who doesn't do simple calculations in his or her head, isn't perceived as less intelligent? It's because, outside of a university math department or an engineering firm, perceptions of people aren't based on their abilities with numbers and calculations. In the business world, perceptions are based on how one communicates. So when that email goes out with typos and misspellings, it becomes part of the perception, the personal brand, the writer projects to the world.
I want to emphasize the word "part" above. Clearly, to people who work with you frequently, with whom you've built personal and professional relationships, the email you send is a very small part of their perception of you, possibly even insignificant. By nature, people will look first to their personal experiences with someone when making judgments about them. However, for those who only know you through an occasional email, it becomes a much larger part. If it's important to you to have a positive personal brand with these people, the quality of writing is something you should pay attention to.
That said, it's not reasonable to expect someone who is not a good speller to simply make the decision to be better, so here are a few possible solutions to consider when an email is really important.
If you have access to a strong writer, use them.
Especially if you have one who works for you. Call them over and have them compose your email. At least have them proof it and make necessary corrections.
Don't hit SEND too quickly.
Take a few seconds and read your email. Many typos happen simply because you hit two keys at the same time by accident, and these are typos you would be able to recognize and fix. It's better to have one or two small errors than five or six, .
Use your spellcheck.
If your email program has a spellcheck, run it. Many programs will underline misspellings in red as you type, which makes it even easier. All you have to do is take five to ten seconds and scan for the underlines.
Keep it short.
Get to the point quickly and wrap it up. First, the fewer words you write, the less of a chance there is for an error. Second, it's simply a courteous use of the reader's time.
Stick to words you know.
Don't try to use impressive sounding words when simple ones communicate the same thing. Also, avoid corporate jargon, which tends to use more words than necessary. In addition to helping you avoid errors, this is just good writing advice.
For most people, following this advice will eliminate a large majority of typos and misspellings. Most readers will overlook that because even the best writers miss one on occasion.
Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to proof the daylights out of this post before I publish it!
There's an arc of experience that I see in almost all creatives who work in a business environment, whether they are writers, like me, or graphic designers, videographers, etc. This was definitely my experience, and I think it's fairly common. We start out after college, in our early 20s at a time when we're excited about making our way in the world of business, among experienced adults. In that environment, it's human nature to want to prove that you belong. So, as a result, we do what we are taught to do: we are creative. I recall a friend of mine who had a meteoric start to his copywriting career right after colleges saying to me, "I see every single assignment they give me as an opportunity to write something kick-ass, no matter how small or unimportant the assignment might be."
While it worked quite well for my friend, the result of this can sometimes be highly creative work that doesn't really address the client's or employer's business interests. Haven't you been impacted by an ad because it's very creative or funny or touching, but you can't quite recall what product it was advertising?
At this point, sales and marketing people enter the equation and hit us with this dose of reality. Sometimes they are direct, as in, "This is crap. Do we need to find something else for you to do around here?" Sometimes they are more polite: "I like what you've done here and it's very creative, but I think we need to be more specific about the product's benefits." Over time, this feedback starts to accumulate and coalesce into an overriding message that your creativity is not as magic as you thought it was. Eventually, the creative professional needs to make a change and it's either get out of the business or adapt.
How do we adapt? At some point, I had to change my thinking. Early in my career, I worked as a copywriter in an advertising department for a travel and tourism school, and one of my responsibilities was writing articles for the school's newsletter. My very first article was about their Career Night, where students would meet potential hospitality employers. Before the event, students were lined up outside the door, professionally dressed and holding a stack of resumes.
I decided to lead the article with the line outside the door, comparing it to the long lines at the theme parks in Orlando, just a few miles away. I wrote the article. In fact, I wrote the living hell out of my theme-park-line lead, pouring everything I had learned about creative prose writing into it. Descriptions of the scene, the heightening anticipation, the giddiness of the students. Hemingway couldn't have written a better lead about a Career Night line than I had written!
Then I showed it to the executive who had to approve it and I remember his response as if it were this morning: "Well, I don't know if I like the idea of comparing our Career Night to an amusement park." And the way he said it, he sounded as though he was insulted because I had belittled this very important event. I was completely deflated and, in a huff, went back to my desk and wrote a standard who-what-when-where-why style lead. It was dry and boring, which is how it was published.
Shame on me. What I didn't realize at the time was that this executive was communicating to me what his business needs and expectations were. I hadn't put any thought into the purpose of this newsletter, its audience, and the desired result of the article. I just wrote something I thought would be good writing.
From this experience, I started to understand the relationship between creativity and business. I started to learn that, even though I had a skill, my skill had no value if I didn't use it in a way that accomplished the business objectives of my employers or clients. And to this day, this is one of my core business ethics: As creatives, we must first understand the business purpose of every creative assignment or project and use our skills to achieve them.
I think it's good advice for fellow creatives, especially those who are fairly early in their careers. And after you've earned your paycheck, if you still need to satisfy your creative urges, write a novel (I have; still unpublished), or get a canvas and start painting and truly enjoy the creative process on your own terms.
Most writers can relate to the feeling that clients don't always see the value of their service. It's true that some potential clients consider "competent" writing – writing that follows the rules of grammar and spelling correctly – sufficient for their business needs. So how does a professional writer help the client understand the value of writing that takes that technical competence and uses it to target specific business objectives.
The key, I think, is to understand the discussion from the potential client's point of view. Strive to understand what's important to the client, and communicate in a way that is meaningful to them. Too often, writers deliver the "I am a strong writer" message, relying too much on work samples, awards or experience as the primary message. This is mostly meaningful to you, the writer, and your writer's ego.
Potential clients only want to spend money to meet their business needs (and can you blame them, really?), so you have to show how your way with words meets those needs. You must communicate how your service leads to results that they (not you) will be happy with. Focus on understanding their business and meeting their needs and your message will be much more persuasive.
Marta Kagan's "Bonafide Marketing Genius" Blog
Andre Sanders' "Running Without Condition" Blog
Jessica Sneeringer's "Mal-Diction" Blog