Turner-Riggs: Blogspace

Communications

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Little Things Count

How are you talking to your clients? Not when you’re vying for work from them, not when you’re in meetings, not at fancy dinners with wine flowing, but when you have to do the mundane, ickier tasks involved with keeping a business viable ... like billing, or reminders of invoices unpaid, or notices of fee hikes or deadlines missed. The small, possibly petty stuff we all hate but which falls into all our lives regardless.

I ask because I was prompted to ask myself the same question the other day, when a letter arrived in the mail from my doctor. I am notorious for missing appointments ... I seem to have too many online calendars with bits recorded here and there—plus I never seem to check them—and I had missed one with this doctor. Instead of the usual “You are a moral degenerate and we will make you pay” letter I could have been sent, I received something quite different.

It said,

“Dear Ms. Turner,

We notice you missed your appointment on November 3, 2012. We hope that you are well and that nothing unfortunate occurred that caused you to miss the date. We look forward to rescheduling with you, but we must also advise you that in the future, we will have to charge you for the appointment unless your absence is a result of an emergency. We hope you understand and sincerely hope everything is okay. Please call us with any questions or to let us know of any changes in your health.”

I almost called just to find out who wrote the letter to let him or her know how excellent it was. It wasn’t my doctor, but the effect of the letter was to make me like him more. And to vow never to be late for an appointment again, let alone miss one without explanation.

How’s that for effectiveness? I was thoroughly chastened, yet grateful for it. My doctor now has a less problematic patient, and his operations will run more smoothly. The letter made me realize how random (and rare) courtesy and humanity are undervalued business advantages that we could all afford to think of as much as possible in our own practice.

Posted by Kiley Turner on 11/24 at 10:10 AM
CommunicationsGeneral • (5) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Family and Friends

Lots has been going on here at Turner-Riggs headquarters. For one, you may know that we have a new intern: Georgia Kate Riggs was born early at just over five pounds in ... February. Your thank-you card is coming if you sent us something! Thank you!

Though she is amazingly gentle and as low impact as a baby can be, Georgia’s arrival was (a) early and (b) coupled with spinal surgery for me. And we have a three-year-old. And I wasn’t done work. And I needed to get my driver’s license. It was all a bit crazy, truth be told.

I finally went on mat leave in April while Craig continues to drive the bus (have you checked out Canadian Bookshelf yet? It’s still developing, but it’s already a thing of beauty. More on that in another post).

Before I went, though, we had the great opportunity to work with Elizabeth Hay on her new website, timed to sync with the launch of her bestselling new novel and one of the season’s major releases, Alone in the Classroom. We worked on the site with our friend Don Aker from AgencyZed, and hired the design talent of Aires Almeida at Operativ. We built it in WordPress with some special AgencyZed sauce added in.

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For us, in addition to the usual priority of developing a site that really felt right to Liz in terms of look and feel, we wanted to see how much we could play with WordPress to make it accommodate features an author would appreciate. Turns out a lot: we were pleasantly surprised by how flexible and extendible WordPress is. We were able to provide automatic linking to event and news items for Liz, to incorporate some nice display widgets for covers and FAQs, and to whittle down the back end of the administration so it’s nice and easy for her to change or add things herself whenever she feels like it.

She’s happy, we’re happy, and it was a dream to work with not only an author I have admired for years but also a lovely, warm woman we now consider a friend.

Posted by Kiley Turner on 06/22 at 06:06 PM
BooksCommunicationsGeneralMarketing • (4) CommentsPermalink

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Blogging Basics

Got a resolution to start a company blog or just be better at updating it? Here are a few tips to help you with your goal.

Tip #1: Write for your audiences.

The first thing to do is figure out who you want to target in your blog. Once you’ve narrowed down and listed each audience, ask questions like:

* What information might help them in their lives/work?
* What kind of expertise can we share with them that matches up with their needs?
* How much time do they have to read the blog? (The answer is probably not much—so think about that in terms of frequency and length of post.)
* What kind of information would they find unhelpful? (Two likely answers are overly product-pushing posts or posts that don’t relate to their needs.)

Tip #2: Define what goals you want your blog to achieve.

For example:

* Interact with current customers
* Gain new customers
* Increase sales
* Increase word-of-mouth
* Keep products top-of-mind
* Build brand image
* Increase brand loyalty and equity

Knowing your goals will help you determine your content strategy.

Tip #3: Define a personality for your blog, and write in that voice.

The rest of your site is likely all about making sales, so don’t go overboard in this area in your blog. You don’t want to come across as a mercenary salesperson hitting your audiences over the head with product after product push. Words that come to mind for a possible personality for the blog are:

* Friend
* Peer
* Ally
* Helper
* Expert

If, through your blog, you help your audiences do their jobs better and feel knowledgeable, they will be more disposed to buying your products, in large part because they will trust you and like you. This doesn’t mean you can’t highlight products you think are wonderful for your audiences—it means do this softly and in the context of other helpful information. Don’t make every post product-related.

Tip #4: Engage your audiences when possible through interactivity.

Think about incentives and the ways in which you’d like your audiences to engage with your content (e.g., discounts, contests, promotions). It’s fine to have the bulk of posts concentrate on good content alone, but try to regularly include ways your audiences can participate (and “win” though doing so). Make sure to repeat such incentives or contests on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook (if you’re up and running on these potentially helpful sites).

Tip #5: Tie your blog to overall business strategy and the social actions you want to inspire.

Think about seasons and cycles when designing content. Think about the products you really want to highlight. If you want to gain fans and followers, design a contest with great prizes and make a condition of entering “liking” your company on FB or following on Twitter. If you want to inspire a commenting culture on the blog, make your audience comment on a post to enter the contest.

Tip #6: Write out a Blog Blueprint—including your thoughts on Tips #1-5.

Keep this handy when writing each and every post. It’ll keep you on track for content—you’ll be ahead of the game in ensuring you make your blog helpful and attractive to your target audiences.

 

Posted by Kiley Turner on 01/18 at 01:04 PM
CommunicationsGeneralMarketing • (132) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Faces and Voices Still Matter

As we all pour hours of our time into Tweeting, Facebooking, and optimizing our websites, it’s worth remembering that we—and our companies—are still basically human. A slick and chatty personality on the web is wasted if you can’t back it up by being courteous and friendly when it comes to the good old traditions of face-to-face contact and phone conversations. Done well, such personal—arguably more intimate—brand touchpoint opportunities can inspire otherwise hard-won trial and loyalty.

Three recent interactions with local companies prompted this post:

Company: Three Bakers and a Bike (1281a Wellington St, Ottawa, 613-729-6236, no website I could find)

Experience: With negative time left to pick up stuff for my son’s birthday party, I was dismayed and panicked to learn at the Three Bakers’ cash register that I couldn’t pay with a credit card for the gorgeous cupcakes I had ordered. Cramming my hands into my pockets, I found a $10 bill amid 500 other crumpled bits of paper—not enough to cover the cost. Before I could check my socks or ask to wash dishes, the owner calmly took my $10 and wondered if I might come back sometime to cover the rest of the bill.

She had never met me before. I thought of her with every bite of delicious cupcake at the party, rushed back the next day to pay her the outstanding amount, and now visit Three Bakers and a Bike whenever I need dessert.

Company: Flowers Talk (1305 Wellington St, Ottawa, 613-321-0592, website under repair)

Experience: My mom’s been fighting a flu for a while. I haven’t been able to go chicken-soup-and-magazine her since our son’s just come off a bad virus (nothing like sick kids when you’re self-employed!) and I’m pregnant and trying desperately to avoid coming down with something this season.

I called Flowers Talk and spoke to a lovely woman who helped me pick out a bouquet and then lingered with me on the phone to perfect the message for the card—double-checking spelling and asking me if it would be okay to add “love” with my name at the end (it was). She so obviously cared about my gesture coming off right, and made sure she could do everything she could at her end to ensure that. Sending flowers is a pretty personal thing, and they get that at Flowers Talk.

Company: Town Restaurant (296 Elgin St, Ottawa, 613-695-8696)

Experience: With a great old friend coming into town for the night, we were excited to get out and try a new restaurant—and had heard Town is pretty special. Sadly, it was a Friday when I called to make reservations and they were booked solid. This didn’t stop the woman on the phone from patiently answering my questions about the menu, checking if we might be okay with bar seating, and getting us onto a cancellation list so she could call me if space unexpectedly opened up. She made me really want to try Town another time—and we will. Contrast that to the couple of other hot spots I called where the people I spoke with who triumphantly declared they were full for the evening and then raced off the phone.

As much as I love a good brand experience on the web, I gotta say that these three offline interactions have stuck with me in a uniquely resonant way.

Posted by Kiley Turner on 11/10 at 11:20 AM
CommunicationsGeneralMarketing • (2) CommentsPermalink

Friday, July 23, 2010

Too Soon to Pronounce Judgement on Old Spice Campaign

There’s been a rash of controversy about whether the new Old Spice campaign with Isaiah Mustafah, almost universally admired for its audacity and humour, will prove to be successful. There is no doubt that it’s a viral smash hit, but there is critique of the campaign around whether this will translate into increased sales for the brand.

We’d love to know the goals of the campaign as set by the creative and strategy teams who worked on it. Only then, and only in time, do we think it will be possible to evaluate the success of the campaign for the brand. If it turns out that the strategy was weak, the humour most likely won’t pay off.

It’s absolutely true that, as Mark Federman, a researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, notes:

“We collectively in our society like good storytelling. We like cleverness. We like unusual humour and we like humour juxtaposed with surreality.”

It’s absolutely not true that our collective love of funny and clever makes us more likely to buy brands. Not unless it’s tied to smart strategy that gets at our wants and needs. At the end of the day, it’s results that matter. In this case, product sales. Nothing else—neither clever strategy nor sparkling creative—is as important. Briefs that lose track of the broad business goals they are meant to achieve are very likely to fail. Because of this, the relationship that we advocate in our practice is goals drive strategies; strategies drive creative.

Our guess at the strategy behind the new Old Spice campaign is that they’re trying to break out of the deodorant-of-choice-for-the-50+-set box and taking a calculated risk of offending a small share of their current market for the sake of chasing a larger market (a younger segment that is more engaged by viral promotion, say) in the long term. In this case, the current campaign is likely only the first step in a larger repositioning strategy. We’ll have to watch and see if this is the case.

From our point sample of one (Craig), well, I’ll let Craig say it:

“I can say for sure that I have not given a moment’s thought to Old Spice for many, many years but I certainly have done since this campaign launched. I’m not troubled by the campaign in any way and admire the creative execution a lot. So does this improve my opinion of the brand? You bet. Does it make me more likely to buy an Old Spice product this month or next? No way. But does it lay a foundation for me to understand the brand in a different way and possibly buy in the future? Maybe.”

Interessado, as we say around here (very cleverly).

Posted by Kiley Turner on 07/23 at 09:32 AM
Communications • (16) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Super Clients, Super Websites

We’ve had the privilege of helping two very cool people launch their brand websites: Carrie McCarthy of Style Statement and Toby Nangle of Nangle+Partners.

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Carrie and Toby—despite their very different businesses and audiences—came just as we like ‘em: passionate, intelligent, open-minded, and right on board the idea of strategy driving execution. We developed branding plans for both Carrie and Toby before jumping into tactical work, and it was thrilling to see things progress according to these blueprints.

Congratulations Carrie and Toby for your awesome sites, and big kudos for design and development to Vivien at VG Universe Design (for Style Statement) and Travis and Susie at Hop Studios (for Nangle+Partners).

Posted by Kiley Turner on 01/13 at 01:15 PM
CommunicationsGeneralMarketing • (2) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

What’s Your Brand’s Major Hurdle and What Can You Do About It?

Every brand has challenges. The best brands—actually, the people behind the best brands—know this, identify the challenges, and come up with solutions to at least minimize them and at best overcome them. Mediocre brands endure a perennial state of a problem’s existing but being ignored in the hopes it will somehow take care of itself or that people—read, audiences—won’t mind too much.

When a brand problem occurs on its public-facing website, it’s a big deal because websites obviously represent such a crucial touchpoint. Following are issues on all too many brand websites:

  • failure to state up front what the brand or company is and does, and/or to explain this enough,
  • insistence on brand features to the exclusion of benefits,
  • presenting in a bland, cold, or otherwise unappealing tone,
  • overestimation of the amount of time users want to spend on the site,
  • failure to address audiences’ needs, manifested in non-user-centric navigation and/or site behaviour, aka ...
  • designing the site according to internal understanding of the brand/company and not according to what audiences want to learn and find.

All of these mistakes are very easy to make, and again, they’re commonly allowed to persist because they’re “not dealbreakers.” Says who? Certainly not the visitors who walk away because of them, since they’re not talking—they’re gone.

Does your website suffer from any of them? We’ll be reviewing ours over the next few months to see where we can improve (do let us know if you have suggestions), but in the meantime, here are a couple of examples of brands that have taken the challenge of confronting—and we think, solving—a major issue they faced.

Brand: Bookriff (currently in closed BETA)
Challenge: Convey a very cool but rather complicated idea as simply as possible so visitors don’t lose interest/get confused/feel it’s too complicated and navigate away from the site.
Solution: Main benefit is written in bold—“build your own book”—with clear explanatory text right below. But most importantly, they include a prominent link to a high-quality how-to video for visitors who would rather learn audio-visually, as well as a link allowing them to try out the concept. We’re excited about Bookriff!

Brand: VisionCritical
Challenge: Bring humanity, energy, and warmth to what could be a very cold, impersonal site (VisionCritical is an online panel research and interactive technology company). Market research sites are often plagued by jargon and boring language.
Solution: On balance, ambitious and interesting copy and content. Lots and lots of video with employees talking like people really do (not canned) about what moves them and excites them. Sometimes the language gets carried away, but for the most part it’s way, way above average for its sector. Take the following for example:

With Vision Critical, grassroots insight is always on, poised to deliver when you need it. Discover and amplify what moves your biggest fans. Find out what your customers want right now. Find out what little touches keep them loyal. See trendsetting customers for what they are: a wealth of winning strategy waiting to be tapped.

Our interactive technology, strategic research and global panels turn customer groundswell into authentic, resonant brands that move with confidence.

Right now.

Because when your customers take the lead, so does your brand.

What comes across with VisionCritical is passion—and that’s a huge achievement considering how dryly the brand could have come across with another treatment. Another nice touch is their interview series: check one out at http://j.mp/6atLaN

So what’s your branding challenge?

And what will you do about it?

 

Posted by Kiley Turner on 01/06 at 01:04 PM
CommunicationsGeneralMarketing • (1) CommentsPermalink

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

How to Get Your Target Audience to Open Your Emails

For starters, don’t include the word “free.”

Way back in 2007, Mailchimp, a company specializing in sending clients’ email newsletters, published an excellent article on what works and doesn’t work for email subject lines. We still go back to that article sometimes because it’s so helpful, so we thought we share some of its highlights and provide its link.

The article is based on Mailchimp’s study of open rates for over 200 million emails.

Highlights
Don’t

  • Don’t include “free”—it’ll trigger spam filters—and avoid “help,” “percent off,” and “reminder”—they reduce open rates.
  • Don’t keep repeating the same subject line from campaign to campaign. It’s good to keep basic branding intact for some consistency but then it’s important to include a focus on new content. So if your September email subject line was “Bookcentral Study Shows No Interest in New Online Bookstore” you could make the next one “Bookcentral’s Top Reading Picks for 2009.”
  • Don’t send too frequently—everyone has too much information to process.
  • Don’t using splashy promotional phrases, CAPS, or exclamation marks.

Do

  • Do keep subject lines short—50 characters or less.
  • Do make it clear that your information is timely (e.g., details on an upcoming conference’s speakers).
  • Do make it a “newsy” headline with information designed to pique your readers’ curiosity (then make sure you satisfy their curiosity in the newsletter).
  • Do put yourself in your readers’ shoes—they are pressed for time and they’re only going to open your email if the subject line is relevant, respectful, interesting, and useful.

Mailchimp ends with this advice: “When it comes to subject lines, don’t sell what’s inside. Tell what’s inside.”

 

 

 

Posted by Kiley Turner on 12/08 at 01:12 PM
CommunicationsGeneralMarketing • (3) CommentsPermalink

Friday, October 16, 2009

Two Slogans: One I Like, One I Don’t

A long time ago I lived in Maseru, Lesotho, and there was this fabulous restaurant we’d go to for celebrations called Fat Alice. I particularly remember the restaurant’s creamy hummus garnished with kalamata olives, crunchy wee pickles, and smoked paprika, not the least because my parents would reserve the olives and pickles for me and my brother. Anyway, we always left there stuffed and happy. Before we returned to Canada, Fat Alice made us a gift of their poster, which we framed. As you can see from the pictures, the restaurant’s slogan was “Fat Alice’s Restaurant: Nobody leaves here thin.”

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I love it for its boldness and sense of humour. It would have been awful if it had been paired with a shmarmy image, but it wasn’t—the picture is romantic, soft,  and playfully suggestive.

Now on the other hand, I reacted negatively to Coke’s 2009 slogan: Open Happiness.

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I don’t enjoy the contrived nostalgia, the nod to a “simpler” time (perhaps the 1950s). I don’t like the equation of drinking cola to happiness. I feel like they’re trying to con me in an arch sort of way. But I’m not the target audience.

Thoughts?

Posted by Kiley Turner on 10/16 at 08:44 AM
Communications • (9) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Now This Is a Portfolio

Craig sent me to the website of Herrainco, a design shop in Richmond, BC, after he checked out the way they presented their portfolio of work.

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All I can say is WOW. No wait, I can say more. Beautiful pictures, perfect balance of spare (layout) and lush (photography), and small but clear invitation to read more about the project. The slim gold back and forward arrows are a nice touch, too.

We’re thinking about refreshing our portfolio. Any impressive examples you’ve seen lately? Send ‘em our way.

Posted by Kiley Turner on 10/07 at 12:24 PM
Communications • (2) CommentsPermalink

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lynda Partner’s Writing Workout

Craig sent me a gem of a post by Lynda Partner on the OneDegree website: Cut the Blah Blah Blah—When Less is the New More. The post advocates stripping writing until only the most necessary, powerful words remain, allowing meaning and core messages to shine through to readers. Here’s an excerpt:

In 1868, writer Mark Twain said

“Anybody can have ideas—the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

In an age where attention spans are shrinking, and 140 character sound bites are all you are allowed on marketing vehicles like Twitter, it is once again time for writing less to become a valued marketing skill.

I couldn’t agree more. In The Power of Slow and Spare, I wrote:

When you’re excited about something your business is doing—a new initiative or product, for example—it’s tempting to want to include in your press release every one of the 34 reasons it’s so great. And explain each reason in depth. And quote all the people who were involved in the idea. And give background. And context. And related information.

But guess what?

Most people will abandon your press release unless you relinquish your dream of including everything you’d ideally like to say. Our society is time-starved as well as compelled to cram as many sources of information in as possible—we are news grazers, not gourmands.

What I love about Partner’s post is that she includes ten tips to apply to the way you describe your own business that will help you distill your message to its absolute core. Here’s Tip #7:

Count how many times you used your product or company name or the word “we.” If it’s more than once in every 500 words, ask yourself if you are writing about you or for your reader. For every statement you write, answer the question “what does this mean for my reader?”

I’m going to sit with those ten tips tomorrow and chew them over. I want to see where the exercise gets me. If nothing else it will be exercise, and exercise is the only way to become a better writer. 

Posted by Kiley Turner on 05/27 at 08:41 PM
CommunicationsWriting • (1) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Write Your Design

When you’re considering a new or refreshed website, it can be tempting to think about design first. It’s natural: we want to appear attractive to our audiences, and generally we have very definite ideas of what this looks like. So often website design takes up a lot of energy, time, and resources at the beginning, and sometimes it leaves little left over for other elements of the website. Like copy.

Don’t get us wrong ... we love great design and see it as a major source of competitive advantage. But copy is king on the web. Copy is content, and content is what everyone is looking for. We are looking for relevant information we need now presented in a logical way that respects that we have no time.

What are the implications of this?

Don’t

  • Don’t get fixated on design at the expense of content.
  • Don’t leave content to the last minute.
  • Don’t think flashy design will make up for sloppy or lackluster content.
  • Don’t think copy you write on paper translates seamlessly to a website: different mediums need different approaches.

Do

  • Do see design and content as inextricably, happily linked.
  • Do see design as having a priority: to support content effectively.
  • Do work on content preferably before or at least at the same time as design. At the recent Mesh 2009 conference, 37signals’ Ryan Singer put it this way: “Interface design is 90% copywriting ... good writing is good design.”
  • Do place your copy strategically according to the way users navigate text on sites.

To this last point, eyetracking studies provide important clues as to how to match copy and design to users’ behaviours. The study Eyetrack III (conducted by The Poynter Institute, the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media, and Eyetools Inc.) “observed 46 people for one hour as their eyes followed mock news websites and real multimedia content.”

Some of the most significant findings from Eyetrack III for web designers and anyone with a website are:

  • Users’ eyes are attracted to text, not graphics “both in order viewed and in overall time spent looking at it.”
  • Users look first at the upper portion of a webpage—left first, then right—and give less attention to the lower portions of a page. So make sure you reference your most important messages up top, probably through headlines and subheads.
  • Large type promotes scanning, while smaller type promotes more focused reading. Both are important behaviours, so it’s up to you to decide which text you’d like readers to scan (e.g., to decide what they’d like to read further) and which you’d like them to zero in on.
  • Users tend to look only at the first few words of headlines. Make sure those first few words are good and catchy.
  • Navigation bars placed at the top of a page performed better than navigation placed elsewhere.
  • Short paragraphs perform much better than longer ones in terms of users’ focusing on them.
  • Ads placed on the top-left, bigger ads, and ads placed close to editorial have the greatest chance of making an impression.
  • Big images, especially those with people’s faces in them, attract the most attention.

Findings like these underline the importance of marrying copywriting and design for websites. In fact, separating the two given this sort of information seems counterproductive. This is well illustrated by a passage from 37signals’ book Getting Real (p. 110):

Do you label a button Submit or Save or Update or New or Create? That’s copywriting. Do you write three sentences or five? Do you explain with general examples or with details? Do you label content New or Updated or Recently Updated or Modified? Is it There are new messages: 5 or There are 5 new messages or is it 5 or five or messages or posts? All of this matters.

For more on writing good website copy, see our post “Writing Web Copy that Gets Read.

 

 

Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/09 at 10:56 AM
Communications • (1) CommentsPermalink

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Launching a Whitepaper

We’ve been working with Launchfire, a leading interactive promotions agency, on a new series of whitepapers, and the first one was just released. The topic this time around is how to motivate consumers with interactive promotions. The premise is that the advertiser-consumer value exchange that has fueled the advertising business for the last 50 years (i.e., 22 minutes of television show wrapped around eight minutes of advertising) needs to be adapted and applied to the Internet.

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Interactive promotions—advergames, contests, and other viral promotions—activate this value exchange in a dramatic way. Because of this, spending on interactive promotions is expected to overshadow online search and display advertising by 2012.

The whitepaper presents findings from a new consumer survey and draws on Launchfire’s 10 years of experience in delivering interactive promotions for leading brands. The paper is available for $0.00 on the Launchfire website, and is well worth a read if we do say so ourselves.

Posted by Craig Riggs on 10/28 at 09:06 AM
CommunicationsMarketingWriting • (3) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How to Tell Your Customers to Go to Hell and Have Them Love You Even More

I received a message in my inbox a little while ago that made my day. It damned me to hell and told me I was despised.

The message was from a company I have always admired. The message made me love this company even more. The company is The Onion, the very funny “news” organization that parodies the real news.

The Onion knows that anyone who likes them and their merchandise appreciates twisted humour. They know their audience expects marketing to be clever and that we’re thrilled it’s now harder for telemarketers to bombard us during Sunday dinner. They know we like to laugh, and that we don’t like earnest, insincere ploys for our attention and dollars.

The Onion knows their audience, and makes sure everything they do considers our taste and speaks to us in a unified, audacious voice.

The Onion is brilliant.


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Posted by Kiley Turner on 10/16 at 03:29 PM
CommunicationsGeneralMarketing • (0) CommentsPermalink

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Writing to Get Read: Paul Collier

How refreshing! In his Globe and Mail column last Saturday, “How to fix the world? Make aid work for the ‘bottom billion,’” Doug Saunders quotes Paul Collier, professor and author of The Bottom Billion, as saying:

I think that economists have a responsibility to write in such a way as to be read by ordinary people and by political leaders. So I wrote a book that’s very readable.

It sounds so logical, so ... “duh!” But it’s actually a bold and confident move for someone who is normally an academic (Collier is an Oxford professor). For anyone, for that matter. If you want to be read, make your writing readable.

His book’s title alone—The Bottom Billion—is serving Collier very well. The title neatly and plainly sums up Collier’s argument: that foreign aid needs to target not the poor, but the poorest of the poor—numbering one billion people, overwhelmingly in Africa—to reverse a tide of social, political, and economic catastrophe that will reverberate across the whole world unless checked.

Collier could have called his book Alleviating Extreme Poverty: An Argument for Targeted Geographic Reallocation of Aid—or some such jargony mouthful, but he refrained. He went for a simple, memorable, concrete title: The Bottom Billion.

As a result of this and strong, plain-language writing, “the bottom billion” is becoming a catchphrase. As Saunders reports, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Kimoon declared 2008 “the year of the bottom billion.” Collier is arguing his case—and promoting his book—across the world, and he has just won the $60,000 Lionel Gelber Award for non-fiction writing. Would Alleviating Extreme Poverty: An Argument for Targeted Geographic Reallocation of Aid have fared so well? It’s highly doubtful.

The Bottom Billion lesson is one that so many companies and organizations could profit from. It can be difficult to trade in the comfort—yes, the comfort—of industry jargon, since it masquerades as refined or “in-the-know” vocabulary. But “masquerades” is the key term: rest on the laurels of jargon, and you won’t be making meaning at all—you won’t be saying anything.

And guess what? People won’t be interested. They won’t be able to be, because there’s nothing to hang onto.

Summoning up the courage to eschew jargon—even when all your competitors use it—and wrestle to say what you mean, in plain language, is a worthwhile challenge. Just ask Paul Collier.

Posted by Kiley Turner on 04/03 at 09:18 PM
CommunicationsGeneralWriting • (1) CommentsPermalink
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