Be the beautiful; follow the ugly

If you want to build and keep an audience, you can take a lesson from Mimi. My tall, classy great-grandmother wouldn’t step out the door of her house (even to the mailbox!) without earrings and lipstick. Her rationale? People are always watching and judging you when you are in public. If you are a communicator, your work is always in public. Here’s how to be beautiful.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - sayings aside, it’s up to your audience to decide what’s good to them. Are they the types who want in-depth rationale and example, or is a quick listicle really going to catch their collective eyes?      

Use language correctly - Jokes about grammar nazis aside, people definitely judge you on your mechanics. Spelling ALWAYS counts. Usage and punctuation are important as well. Basically, if you can’t be bothered to look up if it is who or whom, why should I think you bothered to get the facts straight?

Pay attention to aesthetics - Sorry, but looks matter. Learn and use the principles of contrast and white space. If you use images, use good ones. 

Take the time to be elegant - This is going to vary depending on your audience, but a general rule of thumb is to be simple and short. Whenever possible. (As I was writing that sentence, I almost used the word “heuristic”. Bad choice – not simple. Edit for ease of reading. 

Pro-tip: Follow the ugly

When you go to professor school, you spend a whole lot of time following the ugly. Reading tough, twisted writing. Sometimes spending days nauseated in front of or inside a microfilm machine. It’s painful. But a lot of the best ideas come from the ugliest sources. Much like monks wear robes as a sign that they are concerned with higher things, many great thinkers don’t bother with concerns like being readable, as a sign that they are focused on the ideas. BUT, a lot of times the ideas are some of the best. So, as you do your own reading and research, take the time to look past the aesthetic and to struggle through the wording when the content is worthwhile. Most people don’t bother, so you just might end up a little bit smarter than everyone else. 

 

 

Think, write, fix: My writing process

I am at a sort of a writing retreat this week, and i thought it might be interesting to document my process.

Writing starts with a usable idea and an audience. These are in the same step, because I seem them as inextricably linked. A usable idea is one that I can competently cover giving the time and resources that I have. For example, I teach writing, so that’s pretty straightfoward for me to write about. I do research about communication technology. So, ditto. I can say something worthwhile with appropriate research because I already have the context. I’m not a big auto racing fan, so if I try to write something about the best performance tires for Darlington, I’d better have a lot of time to understand the context of the field so I can interpret the facts. 

Then there is the audience – who will actually read this work, and what are they like. This post gave some ideas about the types of readers. I think a lot of academics think about argument more than audience. But audience is critical. If you are using evidence or logic that will be rejected out of hand, for example, you are wasting your time.

Next is research. This means finding what others have said about the topic, and digesting it into the major views on the topic. For me, this is usually looking at the work of other academics in books and journals, but not always. For a blog post or a Tweet, it may be the arguments of the day or interviews that I rely on. In any case, I like to have most of my ammunition in place before I write.

The next step is the hardest – matching the first two elements into a structure. What should my central point be? How much evidence do I directly provide, and how do I summarize and support in a way that’s the most effect for my intended audience. Remember that it’s not just about you and what you want say. It’s about the people who give my writing life by consuming it and what they want and need. This is a complex process. For me it involves a lot of using optimal distraction to help me think

Then there is writing. Honestly, by this point when I know what it is that I want to say, I blow through this pretty quickly. It’s lousy on the first draft – especially the first half of the first draft. I’m ok with that, though. I think of the drafting as basically the second half of the thinking.

Finally, I fix it. I go back to number 1 – my idea and my audience – and edit with the question: Am I getting my message across? It may take a couple of rounds here, and if I can, I get someone else to read it for me, to give me an outsider perspective. 

 

Hey Wilma vs. spinach. What matters for your audience.

A wise editor I knew once said there are two kinds of stories that the news media have to worry about: Hey, Wilma stories and Spinach stories.

Hey, Wilma stories are the ones that are inherently interesting to the audience. They frequently use news values like celebrity, bizarreness and impact to generate interest from the readers. They are the things people want to read.

Spinach stories are the ones we would call dull, but important. Things the city council does, for instance. They are the things people need to read. In the new media ecology, spinach stories are a hard sell, indeed.

Lots of times, media are criticized for having too much Hey, Wilma, and not enough spinach. Just this weekend, I was reading a book by a colleague who criticized the media for reporting blood and gore ahead of higher-impact matters like infectious disease. That’s true. It happens, but not for the reason you think. It’s not some sort of sick interest on the part of journalists or their audiences. It’s not (always) some impure profit motive that causes media to give the people what they want, even those people will go on to kill themselves through information malnourishment (although this happens more and more).

It’s the very nature of news itself, which is what’s new, what’s different, what’s stuff I need to know about now. Although large-scale risks and consequences are certainly important, if they’ve been around for ages, they are unlikely to make the news.

So what’s a writer to do? Even if you are writing for marketing, that novelty news value is key (probably second only to emotion in gathering attention).

  • Novelty can be a change in something (more people did something, prices haven’t been this low in 20 years, etc.)
  • Novelty can be a new area of interest or new product (Trader Joe’s does a good job of this).
  • Novelty can be a new action (“charity donates 20,000 mosquito nets” can be novel)
  • Novelty can be an unexpected source (“charity started by a 10 year old” would really be novel)

 

Important, though, fake novelty doesn’t work. The fact that you are discounting prices on Black Friday, just like you do every year? Not novel and seems manipulative.

But whether your message is pro-social or pro-business, novelty can work for you.

Keeping content interesting in a jargon-filled world

Some content creators have it harder than others. They work in a world where proper naming of people, places and processes is essential for accuracy, for legal reasons or to please a higher authority like a boss or a profession. Universities are bad about this, so is the military, and so are some businesses – particularly highly regulated ones. Jargon matters to the communicator, but confuses the audience. You get lead sentences like this:

Assistant Director of the Employee Assistance Program and Division Director for the Corporate Image Program John N. Utz stood over the cardboard box in his James Patton Russell Building office unpacking stacks of white T-shirts with the logo of the program’s Look Before you Speak campaign, designed to encourage employees to remember to be smart on social media.

Yuck.

This kind of writing is kind to the corporate mindset that creates it. But it is terrible for the audience. If your writing life calls for lengthy descriptions and identifications, here are a few things that may help:

  • Stick to the essentials. In our example above, the talented Mr. Utz has two titles – one about corporate image and one about employee assistance. Only one matters for this story – the corporate image one. Can you leave the other out?

 

  • Move to the bottom when possible. If you have to use all of Mr. Utz’s honorifics, put the non-related things at the very bottom. At the end of the story, write “Utz is also director of the Employee Assistance Program”

 

  • Move to a subsequent reference if not. If you are referring to a person several times in the piece, break the identification up and  spread out the pain. For example,

Corporate Image Program Division Director John Utz stood in his office unpacking stacks of white  T-shirts he hopes will remind employees to be smart on social media. Utz, who also is the Assistant Director of the Employee Assistance Program,  filled his office with the “Look Before you Speak” campaign logo.

Fight the good fight against jargon. But if you lose, at least try to make it as painless as possible. Your readers will thank you.

Wanted: A new media literacy

Author’s note: This is the 100th blog post on Sturg Says, so I hope you’ll indulge my turning to a somewhat more philosophical matter with this post. 

When I was in the 8th grade, social studies included a media literacy unit that was primarily focused on decoding advertising messages. We watched videos about inaccurate comparison (antacid in your stomach is not exactly paint in a hardhat), bandwagon effect (wouldn’t YOU like to be a pepper, too?) and more. When you consider the 3 major purposes of the media, to inform, influence and entertain, the influence purpose was the most likely to create the manipulation from which we, the youth of America, needed protection. 

Fast forward to today, and the ability of the media to be an engine for an informed citizenry is in jeopardy. There are three major reasons.

The media funding model has changed. The notion of paying a subscription fee and then taking what you get is becoming increasingly unpopular with audiences. Some outlets that have a unique value, such as obviously superior or highly specialized content, are succeeding still, but for most content, the appeal factor to draw in eyeballs is only growing in importance.  

Audience behavior has changed. Now that everyone is a publisher (even me!), there is whole lotta content going on. This means that audiences are using new tools to find information like search and social recommendation. I wrote about this at length here. Also, reading on line is hard. So most people don’t do it. Check out this April Fool’s prank from NPR. If you are still reading in this article, you are a rare bird, indeed. 

The platforms have changed. As social recommendation has moved audiences to push media, in many cases, the only message they get is through a status update or a tweet. You might think this isn’t so different from the days when readers would only skim the headlines. You’d be wrong. The biggest ramification is that information is read with a different and much more limited context. At one time, that headline was in a particular type size, might have had a subhead underneath it, appeared on a particular page or section, had a story length and even sometimes a picture that went along with it. That was important information to help the audience rate the relevance and context of just that headline’s content. And much of that is what has been lost.

So what?

My 8th grade media literacy, wherein we learned the rhetorical tricks used in persuasion, is not enough any more. 

It’s been believed for a while now that people gravitate to information that reinforces what they already believe. This isn’t new, but the way technology makes it seem like reinforcing information is the ONLY information is new.  

This is a problem. Critical thinkers consider multiple points of view before making up their minds. And generally, society benefits when critical thinkers use the best information to decide how to vote, whether to include a certain person in history or whether to get their children vaccinated. But the targeted advertising model that I wrote about here makes it pay off to give the people more of what they want. So media literacy needs to go further. I suggest a 10-question test for information. 

An inquiry-based model of media literacy

  • What does the message say? 
  • Is it a quality message? (There’s a quick set of questions here to help you tell this)
  • Who communicated it? 
  • Why did they communicate it?
  • How did they communicate it?
  • Who else has something to say? 
  • Why am I not getting that message?
  • What is missing from the message because of the communicator?
  • What is missing from the message because of  the form?
  • Where could I find out more?

 

Content overload – strategies for getting above the noise with text

As I mentioned last time, I read more than ever. At least some of that is because I feel like I have more to read than ever. Whether you are just trying to make your opinions known, or to boost your search rankings through content marketing, good writing is more important than ever. Step 1 for readers? Is this piece going to be tolerable to get through. 

I grade a lot of writing (really, really feeling it this Exam week!). Here are the general criteria I use:

Is the writing form appropriate for the topic? If you are reporting data, sentences with a lot of numbers in them just don’t make sense. If you explaining a funeral home’s services, opening with a joke about zombies* might not be the most tasteful approach.  

Is the writing form appropriate for the audience? One of my biggest pet peeve in this is billboards. I am not going to remember a lengthy URL from one. I remember one from a college that used the college’s initials as white in the black words let it be. They were getting at the fact that they speak “words of wisdom”, but I passed that billboard every day for 8 months, frequently as a passenger, before I got it. There’s two issues here: what the audience WANTS to know and what the audience CAN understand. 

Are the facts straight? There are two factors here: accuracy and logic. Good writing uses both. Writing that doesn’t makes me hate you.

Are the tools of language used properly? Jokes about grammar police and nazis aside, readers totally judge you on this. If you can’t get the commas right, how can I trust that you got the facts straight? 

Note that all of the above are basic level issues. In my classes, do that right and you get a B. To get an A, you have to be interesting, too, and that’s a whole different challenge. 

*What’s a zombie’s favorite lunch? Manwiches. 

Intentional reading to become a better writer

One of my biggest regrets in being a professor is that I don’t get to read as much as I would like during the school year. That’s a funny thing to say, since I truly spend much of my day reading. I read academic articles. I read student work. I read at least 60 e-mails a day and probably 400 Tweets. I read news pretty compulsively. But it’s not the kind of reading I like to do, which is the kind of reading that can help me be better as a writer

Here’s how reading helps. 

Reading widely - Some of my colleagues at the university in the traditional liberal arts and sciences are surprised when I share with them how much we in communications value the liberal arts core of our and our students’ educations. But I am completely sincere. As a writer, I am weak if I don’t have a deep base of knowledge and context to understand the things I write about. I have to think critically before I communicate, and that means I need to have considered a variety of issues from a variety of viewpoints. Reading widely gives me new ideas, better understanding of existing ideas and an appreciation for how the complex variety of people that composes humanity views the world. Increasingly, my own students have holes in that deep base of knowledge and context, as well. You’d be surprised how much history and government and science and even math gets taught or at least refreshed in communication classes. I never regret having learned new things. 

Reading deeply – In addition to having something meaningful to say, I need to be able to say it well. If you write things and I read your work deeply, I learn from you. Great literature is wonderful for this. But so, too, is great journalism. Surprise – even the latest Buzzfeed listicle can teach me as well as amuse me, if I pay attention. Deep reading teaches me about wording elegantly and clearly, but also about being convincing and about being interesting. I teach my students to do this by deconstructing news articles, humor columns and advertisements like they might in a literature class. By taking reading apart, they learn how they might put their own writing together to achieve similar success.

So although the reading on my immediate plate is 24 first-year research essays and a whole passel of student blog posts, summer beckons. Stretches of time and mental space to read widely and deeply. I can’t wait.