EARNEST WORDS from Ernest Nicastro

Opinions, musings, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant…on life,

language, marketing, advertising and what's going on in the world.

  

How to Tap Into a Steady Stream of SEO-Friendly Content Your Customers, Prospects & Google Will Love

Mine the mother lode of content from your company’s subject matter experts to “feed the Panda” (Google’s new rules for SEO) with a steady diet of useful original content. The phrase has become so common it’s trite, a cliché. And yet, like most clichés it abounds with truth. Content is king. This verity has been confirmed by none other than the kingmaker itself, Google, as it continues to refine and rejigger its powerful search engine to penalize sites with low quality content and reward sites with unique and insightful content. This new set of “signals” that Google uses is known as the Panda update.

According to Google: “The Panda update was designed to improve the user experience by catching and demoting low-quality sites that did not provide useful original content or otherwise add much value.”

But publishing a steady diet of high-quality original content can be a problem. Especially if yours is a small to mid-size business with a lean marketing staff. Fret not, though. If your business is like most, it’s sitting on a mother lode of original, high-quality content you can mine to win Google’s “love,” multiply search results, and grow your business. That mother lode is the collective wisdom and on-the-job experiences of you and your employees.

Think about it. How much insight do you have about your industry? How many years of frontline experience, knowledge and accumulated “war stories” can you draw on to make relevant, meaningful points that help you connect with customers, prospects, and Google? Now think about your employees, particularly your salespeople. Ask yourself the same questions about these people.

This accumulation of smarts, experiences and industry knowledge is ideal for blogging. And a company blog continuously updated with new pages of original, high-quality, search-aware content is a sure-fire way to improve your search results. Now maybe you’re thinking, “easier said than done.” True. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be the arduous, pain-in-the-rear task you might think. Here’s a proven blogging technique that  can help you remove “pain” from the equation:

How to mine the mother lode of content within your organization – As noted, you and others within your organization are a rich source of useful, original content. But none of it will do you any good unless you bring it to the surface and get it into distribution. To the extent that you have adequate writers within your organization – adequate defined as employees who, while they wouldn’t consider themselves professional writers, know the basics of grammar and how to tell a good story – you’re in luck. The job then is to pick topics of interest to customers and prospects and match the topics to the writers.

Here’s a tip for zeroing in on good topic ideas. Visit the websites of trade publications that serve your industry and pull up their editorial calendars. Any topic you find on these calendars is a topic worth covering on your blog.

Now maybe you don’t have an abundance of writers at your company. But odds are, and especially among your salespeople, you have a number of people who love to talk and “talk shop.” Whereas the thought of sitting down and writing something would be a pain to them, the idea of engaging in a 30 – 45 minute recorded conversation that’s turned into a by-lined, SEO-friendly blog post that helps generate leads will probably appeal to them. (Later this recorded conversation will be turned into a transcript and used as the basis for the post/article.) Also, consider this: When a prospect googles that salesperson and his or her blog post comes up in the search results, what do you think the prospect is going to click on? Yep, the blog post. And when the prospect reads that well-written blog post your salesperson’s credibility can’t help but be enhanced.

To get at the unique and original content, assign the most skilled writer in your marketing group to discuss the predetermined topics with your subject matter experts. Your subject matter experts and your writer should think bullet points, in-the-field experiences and anecdotes (these experiences and anecdotes are what makes your content unique), and most importantly, takeaways for the reader. Stay on topic and the SEO keywords and phrases will take care of themselves. And you can always tweak things SEO-wise once you’re finished.

With focused discussions, transcripts of these discussions and maybe a little additional research your marketing professional should be able to produce a steady diet of useful, unique, search-aware blog posts that improve your search rankings. This high-quality, SEO-friendly content, as it accumulates, can be re-purposed and reformatted for other types of content marketing and sales collateral.

Here are 2 examples of the type of original and useful blog content you can come up with when a good writer and a subject matter expert collaborate in the manner I’ve outlined: Considering Connector Contact Materials, Intellectual Property Management: 3 Ways To Profit From Your Patent. And yes, in these two instances I am that “good writer.”

How To Write An Attractive Sales Letter Or EMail That Attracts More Readers

Like it or not, looks matter. And particularly in sales, appearance is important. For example, in a competitive situation, all else being equal, the appearance of the salesperson may very well be the deciding factor in who gets the business. And that may come down to the smallest of details, such as who had the better shine on his or her shoes.

Appearance is also an important factor in the success of your sales letter or marketing email. For example, the marketer with a good mailing list, a compelling offer, effective copy — and who pays careful attention to how his letter or email looks…will have better results than the person who focuses solely on content, with no regard to how it’s presented. This is akin to a master chef who slaves to produce a sumptuous meal and then dumps it on a paper plate and serves it up to you with no regard for its presentation. The meal would be every bit as delicious, but you might be the least bit hesitant about taking that first bite.  

No doubt about it: Your words are the heart and soul of your sales letter, and crucial to its success. So you want to do everything you can to make sure your prospect reads your words. That said, here are 5 tips for making your sales letter or email look more attractive. Put these tips to work and you’ll significantly increase the likelihood that your “must read” message gets read — and, most importantly, acted on.

Tip Number 1: Always use a reader-friendly typeface. Look at the major news magazines, such as Time and Newsweek and you’ll see that they use mostly serifed typefaces for their editorial content. (Serifs are the little knobs you see on the ascenders and descenders of individual letters.) That’s because typefaces with serifs (Times Roman, Courier, Century) can be read more easily than sans serif typefaces (Arial, Helvetica). At least that’s the case in the print world. In the online world the choice is less clear-cut, with some experts and tests showing that a sans serif font is actually more readable.

 Tip Number 2: Make your first sentence a short sentence. The first line of your direct response piece is the most important line you’ll write. So don’t blow your chances for success by starting off with some interminably long 20 – 30 word sentence. Here’s an example opening from my own files: “I know you’re busy so I’ll get right to the point.” Eleven words. I once wrote a sales letter that had an opening sentence that consisted of just one word. That word was, “Ouch!”

Tip Number 3: Limit the length of your paragraphs to between 5 and 7 lines. You want your letter or email to have an easy-to-read appearance to it. Because there are probably at least 14 other things that your customer or prospect has to do that are more important to her than reading your letter or email.

 So when she turns her eyes to your communication the last thing she wants to see are fat, 10 -12 sentence paragraphs that look like a lot of work to read. She wants to see something that looks quick and easy to read. I usually never go over 6 lines in any paragraph and I try to keep most between 1 and 5 lines. Also, always double-space between paragraphs.

 Tip Number 4: Vary the length of your paragraphs. The last thing you want is for the layout of your piece to have a boring sameness to it. That’s why I advise that you often use the “print preview” mode on your word processor with an eye toward the overall look of your words. So mix up your paragraph length. This will make your writing look more interesting and appealing.

 Tip Number 5: Set the body copy of your letter in 11-12 point type and use sub-heads, bullets and other call-out devices. Keep in mind the audience you are writing for. If you’re writing to Gen-Y computer programmers 11-point type is probably fine. On the other hand if you’re targeting the “mature” market you may want to consider using a 13-point type size.

Also, keep in mind that many people will scan your marketing piece before making a decision to read it. That’s why centered, bold-faced sub-heads and other call-out devices can increase readership. Here are a couple of sub-head examples from one of my projects.

 Customer service so good you’ll have to pinch yourself to be sure you’re not dreaming.

A special no-risk, no-obligation offer.

Sub-heads, bulleted lists, underlining, and other devices can help you attract attention to key parts of your letter. But take care to use these devices sparingly. Overuse of them can negate their effectiveness.

Yes, like it or not, looks matter. Attractive people get more looks and longer looks. The same holds true for your sales letters and emails — or for that matter, all your marketing collateral. Apply these 5 tips and you’ll make your letters and emails more attractive, attract more readers, and, generate more leads and sales.

Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain & Lightning: Choice Words On Word Choice

“Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….
The Gettysburg Address

Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln was not only a great leader, he was a great writer. So instead of beginning his Gettysburg Address with a cold, lifeless number, he opens on a prayerful note with a turn of phrase adapted from the 90th Psalm of the King James Bible: “Four score and seven.” 

Clearly, Lincoln knew the difference between the almost right word – and, the RIGHT word. A distinction defined by Mark Twain some 25 years later as…”the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” With this thought in mind, in today’s post I offer a few choice words on word choice to help you get more of the right words into your copy and make your writing more engaging, memorable and effective.

Let’s start by looking at a line from the sports section of my local daily, The Columbus Dispatch.  In a story a few years back, the reporter described Dick Vitale’s reaction to being voted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. Vitale, explained the writer, “admitted he ‘cried like a baby’ upon learning he was induced.” 

Maybe Vitale’s use of the word baby clouded the writer’s thinking. Because induced is so NOT the right word.  (And yes, in all fairness maybe it was simply a typo. Either way, the end result is the same: poor communication.)

Which leads us to today’s big (but hardly revolutionary) idea: For more effective word choice think harder about the words you choose.

For example, although it’s obvious that the reporter made the wrong choice, what about the writers who penned these lines?

  • This is literally the equivalent of Microsoft coming to your house and locking a CD in your car CD player.
  • More CIOs are disinterested in Linux
  • And I know you didn’t do this just to win an election. And I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

How many of these people made the wrong word choice? Actually, that’s a trick question. Because they all did. Yes, you may have read or heard a word used a certain way – even in a prestigious publication, by a noted expert or by the soon-to-be leader of the free world. But that doesn’t mean the word was used correctly. (See my earlier post, Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words, for more examples like the above.)

As to why the above words are – in Mark Twain’s manner of speaking, lightning bugs – I’ll go over one of them: enormity.

The first two definitions listed in my Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) are - 

  1. Great wickedness, the enormity of this crime.
  2. A serious crime, these enormities.

In all fairness, the OAD lists “enormous size, hugeness” as its third definition.  But it follows this listing with a usage note that reads: “Careful writers do not use this word in the last meaning. They use enormousness.”  I don’t know about you, but I expect presidential speechwriters to fall into the careful writers group.

Now for two specific word choice tips:

  1. Choose small, simple words –

The Gettysburg Address is 271 words long. Two hundred and twenty of them, 81%, are just one syllable. My advice? For more effective word choice think like Lincoln. Think small:

Instead of writing “utilize,” “peruse,” “ascertain,” write “use,” “read,” “find out.”

Now am I advising you to never use big words?  No, of course not.  But in most cases small words will serve your purposes better.  And here’s one reason why:

“The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is – and therefore the more credible it will be.”
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear – By Dr. Frank Luntz

My second word choice tip is this:

  1. Use mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous, active-voice words

Strunk and White in their classic book, The Elements of Style, put it this way:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs….It is nouns and verbs that give to good writing its toughness and character.”

As to the active voice, legendary copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis lays down the law in his “Active/Passive Rule.”

“Unless you specifically want to avoid reader involvement in your message, always write in the active voice.”

For instance:

  • Instead of writing: “Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated immediately and an e-mail confirmation will be sent automatically to you.”
  • Write: When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an e-mail confirmation.

Notice the difference the active voice makes? Notice also how the active voice makes the writing more “you-centric.” Simply put, active verbs keep your reader involved and improve credibility and response rates.

For example, I seldom use the word “allows” because it’s a passive, “permission granting” word. I prefer enables or makes it possible. Unlike “allows,” enables and makes it possible  are active and empowering. As a result, these words are more likely to keep your reader involved with your copy.

So -

  • Instead of writing “Study Software allows you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….” write “Study Software enables you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….”
  • Instead of writing “SmartList To Go allows you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.” write “SmartList To Go makes it possible for you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.”

Words are powerful business tools. And the good news is that no matter who you are – Bill Gates or Bill Bailey – you have the same access to these powerful tools as anybody else

So, to greatly improve your odds of catching lightning on a page or a screen and gaining the response you seek, remember today’s big idea and two tips:

For more effective word choice, think harder about the word you choose.

  1. Choose small, simple words.
  2. Choose mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous active-voice words.

Follow these recommendations and while your words might not make history…they will be duly noted, better remembered – and, most importantly, more effective.

Recommendations for additional reading:
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words
, By Ronald C. White Jr.
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear
,
By Dr. Frank Luntz
On the Art of Writing Copy, Third Edition
, by Herschell Gordon Lewis
The Elements of Style
, by William Strunk and E.B. White

Sex, Quality, Copywriting & Marketing: How To Play The “Q-Card” For Winning Results

Recently, and strictly for research purposes mind you, I googled the word “sex.”

My search returned 3,900,000,000 results. Next, I searched the word “quality” and got 5,800,000,000 hits. Based on these results one might make a case that we have a greater interest in quality than sex. While I believe this would be a seriously flawed hypothesis, it’s well established that quality is an important consideration in the buying decisions we make. That’s why every year businesses spend billions playing the “Q-Card.”

A generation ago Ford Motor spent huge advertising dollars reminding us: At Ford, Quality is Job 1. Today, Mercedes-Benz positions its automobile as Engineered Like No Other Car in the World while BMW touts its vehicle as The Ultimate Driving Machine. And I love the Apple campaign that paired a good-looking, way-cool guy named Mac with a nerdy schlub called P.C. Apple’s message was unmistakable: If you want a cooler, hipper product that delivers a better quality computing experience, buy a Mac. Currently, Allstate has wisely chosen not to join the chorus of insurance companies chanting the “save you money” mantra and is instead using its award-winning “mayhem” campaign to successfully brand itself as the quality choice among home and auto insurers.

Of course, all of the above are multi-billion dollar corporations with massive advertising budgets. They can effectively play the “Q-Card” through sheer force of repetition. But what if you own or work for a business with more limited resources?  How does your business play the “Q-Card” for winning marketing results? In this article I present you with ONE KEY IDEA and several tips and examples to help you do just that.

Let’s start by looking at an example of how not to play your “Q-Card.” It’s from a company called The Ding King. I found this copy on their web site:

Our Commitment to Quality

  • Quality Training
  • Quality Tools
  • Quality Lighting Systems that enable you to see the “entire dent”
  • Quality Staff to Support You
  • Quality Training Facilities
  • Quality Instructors to Educate You
  • Quality PERIOD!!!

That is exactly what The Ding King Training Institute will provide you with – Quality!

OK, pop quiz time. What did you learn about The Ding King’s commitment to quality? If you answered “nothing” give yourself an “A+” and a gold star. Because you astutely observed that although The Ding King uses the word quality 9 times, only once (see the “entire dent”) does it even hint at what it means by quality. It’s as if the company believes that repetition alone is enough to get its point across.

But “quality,” in and of itself, means little. For example, looking in my Oxford American Dictionary I see that the first definition listed for quality reads, “a degree or level of excellence.” What degree? What level? It’s up to the copywriter to provide those details.  

Which brings us to today’s KEY IDEA:

In order to play a winning “Q-Card” you must include relevant and specific details about your product or service to support your express or implied claim of quality. (Hey, I didn’t say it would be a new idea.)

I’ve reworked two of The Ding King’s bullet points with today’s key idea in mind:  

  • Quality ToolsAll Ding King tools are manufactured in the U.S. by ISO-9001 certified manufacturers and backed by a five-year money-back performance guarantee.
  • Quality Instructors to Educate You - Ding King instructors average 12 years of industry experience and 40% of them have worked in the industry for 20 or more years.

As far as I know the details I’ve added are pure fiction. But the details are not the point. The point is to use the strongest, most relevant facts, data and details you have at your disposal. Relevant facts, data and details are the nuts and bolts that give credence and believability to your claim of quality. These nuts and bolts will make your “Q-Card” copy meaningful, memorable, persuasive.

Still, to quote Herschell Gordon Lewis, legendary copywriter and author of more than 30 books on marketing and advertising, “The easiest thing for any of us to do is criticize someone else’s work.” So then, let me balance my Ding King criticism with a praiseworthy “Q-Card” example.

It takes well-trained, quality people to build a quality home
Palm Harbor Homes explains on its website that it owes its “exceptional results” to its focus on quality and the ability of its “exceptional associates.” More importantly, Palm Harbor provides a number of details about its employee-training program. This training, explains the Palm Harbor website, ensures that its associates “have the knowledge needed to constantly improve the quality we build into our homes.” (I like that phrasing. It’s warm, active, visual.)

Among other details, visitors to Palm Harbor’s website learn that –

  • “Each new associate receives at least 16 hours of classroom training in our Quality Improvement Process.” (Note that it’s not simply training but “classroom training,” phrasing that calls to mind a room full of associates, each with a legal pad, pen in hand, instructor leading the class.)
  • “The lessons learned…are reinforced during weekly meetings as well as monthly team luncheons.” (Specific details about how often and how regular.)
  • “Then, because the Quality Improvement Process is a continuing process, all associates receive refresher courses and updated training designed to help them make full use of their abilities.” (And the company makes sure its associates keep current with their training.)  
  • “As a company, [Palm Harbor’s] commitment to quality and value is even integrated into [its] compensation systems.” Plus, the company compensates its associates not only on their productivity but also “on the level of customer satisfaction they are able to produce.” (Great! Part of their compensation is tied to my satisfaction.)

You see the difference? Unlike The Ding King, Palm Harbor does much more than simply parrot the word quality. It offers specific and relevant details about how it ensures its associates have the training and skills it takes to deliver quality service and build a quality home. (And in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t write their copy. Wish I had, though.)

Detailing the time and attention you put into properly training your employees is one effective way to play your “Q-Card.” Other factors and areas of operations to consider, include:

  • Your company’s production, manufacturing and quality control standards
  • Your company’s customer care and customer service practices (Nordstrom is legendary in this regard)
  • Your company’s customer retention rate
  • The expertise and experience of key personnel and executives and employee certifications and designations
  • The stability of your workforce.

In short, any customer-relevant details that speak to the quality of your people, products and (or) services, or your organization as a whole.

Here are three examples from my own experience:

  1. A number of years ago I did a project for a printing company. I noticed that whenever I called I was always greeted by a friendly, live voice within the first few rings. I told the marketing director what a nice touch this was and she replied, “Oh yes. We have a policy around here that we answer the phone before the fourth ring and always with a live voice.” I made it a point to mention this in their marketing materials.

    (As a self-serving but relevant aside, the preceding anecdote highlights one reason why it can be helpful to work with an outsider in developing marketing materials. A company employee would not likely: (a) Have had that many occasions to call in to the company and (or) (b) Been too accustomed to the timely “live voice” answer to think of it as a selling point.)

  2. I interviewed a company executive as prep work for a project I did for a home-builder. In answering one of my quality-related questions he told me that while most builders either nailed or glued the sub-floor construction, his company always did both. And he punched up this point by saying, “We spill more glue in construction than most contractors actually use.” The “nail and glue” fact made it into the body copy of the brochure; the “spill” quip served as a caption for one of the photos.
  3. The “Q-Card” copy below, written for a small contract manufacturer of specialty chemicals, highlights not only the experience and expertise of its chemists but also the breadth of that experience:

    “Our staff chemists average more than 25 years of experience. Excellent scientists, they also have substantial experience with the entire production process. From development work to operating a pilot-plant reactor – on any given project they can and often will do it all. As a result, they understand, better than most, the difference between what’s possible in a lab and what’s doable in a manufacturing environment. And that can save you time, money and headaches.”

As I come to the conclusion of this post I can sum up the gist of whatever wisdom there may be in the preceding 1504 words with the following five-word sentence. Be specific when you write. This is always good writing advice to follow, especially when you’re writing marketing copy and even more so when writing “Q-Card” copy. For while the majority of your customers and prospects most decidedly do not have a greater interest in quality than sex, when it comes to buying decisions quality – dressed up in relevant and meaningful specifics – has a very strong “sex appeal” that will help the marketer advance or close the sale.

“The ‘Beat the Rush’ Happy Thanksgiving/Happy Holidays Letter”

A number of years ago I sent out a Happy Thanksgiving/Happy Holidays Letter to clients. I received more than a few favorable comments on it. One client liked the letter so much he insisted on paying me for it so that he could use it for his company. Maybe you, dear reader, will want to do the same. That is, use it for your company.

Reproduced below is a copy of the letter. One big advantage to sending a Thanksgiving letter is that your greetings will likely be the very first of this type to arrive. So you’ll beat the “holiday rush,” stand out and be remembered.

If you put this letter to work for you I have one recommendation and one small favor to ask. The recommendation is to send it out the old-fashioned way, via postal mail. I just think it makes the sentiments more meaningful and special. As for the favor, if you do use this letter or some version of it, and receive comments about it, please check back and post about your experience with it.

Thanks for stopping by and – while I’m never one to get the holiday spirit this early in November – given the nature of this post it’s fitting that I wish you and your family and loved ones a joyous and happy holiday season filled with hearty health and much good cheer.

November 7, 2011

Mr. Wonderful Client
Wonderful Clients, LLC
1234 Wonderful World Ave., Ste. 1
Wonderful City, Wonderful State,  12345

 Dear Wonderful,

 As we approach the Holiday Season I hope that all is well with you and your family and loved ones. 

 (For smaller companies when writing to an owner or executive.) And I trust that things are continuing to go well with Wonderful Clients with another year of higher sales and profits.  Because like someone once told me, it’s good to see good people do well.

(For larger companies when writing to an employee, or, when writing to an individual who is the end-user of your product or service.) And I trust that things are continuing to go well with your work and career.  Because like someone once told me, it’s good to see good people do well.

Of course, next Thursday is the traditional start of the holiday season…and the day we set aside to count our blessings and give thanks (not to mention stuffing ourselves with obscene amounts of food).  And one thing I’m thankful for in 2011 is the opportunity to work with you and Wonderful Clients.

 So, as it is the most appropriate time of the year for this expression, let me say Thank You for helping to make 2011 a very good year for (Company of the person writing letter).  And as we wind down 2011 and move into the New Year please know that I look forward to my next opportunity to be of service.

My sincere best wishes to you and the entire Wonderful Clients staff for a very Happy Thanksgiving and a most joyful Holiday Season.

 Sincerely,

Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words

So I’m at the gym the other morning putting in an hour on my favorite elliptical, the one that’s smack dab in front of the TV. The Today Show is on and they’re doing a segment on retirement planning. The reporter is interviewing a financial expert.

“So,” she asks, “what are the things people need to be honing in on as they approach retirement?”

I grimace and think, “No, that’s not right.”

Then I recalled a conversation from a couple of years ago. I’d emailed my client a draft of the direct mail promotion I’d written for him. After he looked it over we talked on the phone. He questioned me about the following sentence: “You’ll collaborate with Alan and others in the room to home in on the answers.”

“Home in,” Alan asked, “is that correct?”

As I’m sure you’ve concluded by now, the first of my 3 Commonly Misused Words is -

  1. Hone – According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word hone, meaning “to sharpen,” has been around since 1828. You can hone a knife and you can hone your writing, public speaking and marketing skills. But you can’t hone inon anything.

    The correct word, the correct phrase, is home in. In the 19th century the metaphor referred to what homing pigeons do. By the early 20th century, the phrase came to refer also to what aircraft and missiles do.

    Search the phrase hone in though and you’ll see that its usage is widespread. Respected writers such as George Plimpton and Bob Greene have used the phrase. It’s appeared in the pages of the New York Times, the Boston Herald and many other well-regarded publications. At least one online dictionary lists “to move or advance toward a target or goal” as a definition for hone in.

    Still, any communicator who’s serious about communicating will avoid hone in. Sure, most people will understand what you mean by it. But some of them will “discount the messenger” for using this phrase.

    Why take that hit to your credibility? If home in on doesn’t sound right to you go with zero in on – which, on second thought, might have been a better choice of words for that promo I wrote for Alan.

  2. Comprise – If there were a “Hall-of-Shame” comprising exhibits related to misused words, the space devoted to comprise would surely be one of its largest. The comprise exhibit would be filled with such examples as the following:

    “What they’re saying is far from riveting, but together these images comprise [make up] a small-town symphony of pig racing and wedding planning, young love and old misdemeanors.” – New York Times

     “If, when configuring an action dialog, you want to be able to view the values that comprise [constitute] a CVL, run Designer….” – IBM.com

     “So they devised a sound-damping sensor, comprised of [composed of] an infra-red motion-detector, a speaker and a microphone.” – FastCompany.com

     Comprise means “to include, contain, consist of.” The whole comprises the parts.

    As with hone-in, you can find a dictionary entry to justify using comprise to mean “to form, to make up.” My paperback Oxford American Dictionary includes “to form, to make up” as the third definition for comprise. But it also adds the following usage note: “The words constitute and compose are preferable in this sense. It is incorrect to say or write ‘the apartment is comprised of three rooms.’” (They clearly state that the usage is incorrect. And yet they include it as a definition anyway. Go figure.)

    To wrap up this section, here are three examples where the writers make precise and skillful use of comprise:

    “Comprising six essential programs, AMTECH Office Pro increases your competitive advantage, helps you win business and saves you time and money.” – AMTECH Power Software website, product description page

    “Crown Business Park is an exciting new development and will comprise high specification office, industrial and warehouse buildings along with bespoke design and build opportunities.” –  Barnfield Construction website

    “Serge Brunier is a French photographer and writer who has specialized in the stars. One of his most stunning works, a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panoramic view of the Milky Way, comprises more than a thousand photographs taken over the course of a year.” “Digital Pick: Starry Night” New Yorker (blog), May 20, 2010

  3. Podium – In August 2009 President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at Sen. Ted Kennedy’s funeral mass. It’s a moving and (as you would expect at this level) well-written speech. This otherwise note-perfect piece of prose, however, is marred by the President’s misusage of the word podium.

    Obama’s text, referring to Sen. Kennedy, reads as follows:

    “We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers’ rights or civil rights.”

    Obama and his speechwriters paint a vivid picture and they no doubt liked the alliteration of “pounding the podium.” Problem is, in the most widely accepted definition of podium, Sen. Kennedy would have to have fallen flat on his face to be “pounding the podium.”

    That’s because, according to Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, “A lectern is the stand on which a speaker places his or her notes. A podium is the raised platform on which the speaker and lectern stand.” And in The Accidents of Style, Charles Harrington Elster, a nationally recognized authority on language and the author of eight books, writes, “The style manuals of The Associated Press and The New York Times support that time-honored distinction [lectern versus podium] and insist, as the latter puts it, that ‘a speaker stands on a podium and at or behind a lectern.’”

    For the final word on podium I turn to Garner’s Modern American Usage. This widely respected guide acknowledges that while using podium for lectern “has become commonplace…careful writers should avoid it.”

Careful writers, isn’t that what we all should aspire to be? Of course it’s one thing if you’re sending an email to a family member or friend. Another thing altogether if you’re –

  • posting content on the company website or blog
  • writing a white paper, case study or newsletter
  • giving a presentation at an industry conference
  • making the “big pitch” to the buying committee when your pitch is one of three competing pitches.

In the above instances and in all our business communications we want to put our best foot forward, and that calls for careful writing. Because careful writing preserves and enhances our credibility. Bryan Garner, writing in the preface to the third edition of his Garner’s Modern American Usage and alluding to those who urge wider acceptance of such disputed usages as presented in this article, has this to say:

“There aren’t just a few dozen trouble spots in the language, or even a few hundred. There are several thousand of them. Given the critical acumen of many readers, for a writer to remain unconscious of these pitfalls and write whatever sounds close enough will inevitably lead to a loss of credibility. Vague intelligibility isn’t the touchstone; precision is.”

Hone in? Comprised of? Using podium for lectern? If your objective is not only to communicate, but to communicate with a precision that preserves and enhances your credibility, you’ll forgo (not forego) these words and phrases and make every effort to…get it right when you write (or speak).

That’s my take. What’s yours?

© 2011 Ernest Nicastro

Why Do People Write This Way? (And How You Can Avoid Doing The Same)

Leverages a proprietary coaching framework…purposeful investments in human capital…aligning people and systems in pursuit of….

…why do people write this way?

To dramatize the absurdity of this type of non-communication I’m going to stage a scene.

“Bob” runs a consulting firm that helps entrepreneurs, business owners and managers become more effective leaders. He’s going over a few details with his new receptionist when a sharp dressed man (any ZZ Top fans out there?) in a suit and tie walks in.

Bob looks up, smiles, and says, “Good afternoon, Sir. How can I help you? The sharp dressed man replies, “Sir, I’m a business owner and I’ve been searching for a good consulting and training firm that focuses on leadership issues. I was in this building for a meeting with my accountant and when I walked by your office and saw the name of your business…well, something just clicked with me. Got a few minutes to talk?”

Bob shows Mr. Sharp Dressed Man to his office and they both take a seat. “So,” the man asks, “can you tell me exactly what it is Leader Coaching does?” “Sure,” Bob says, “I’d be happy to tell you about us…”

“Leader Coaching leverages a proprietary coaching framework, proven over years of practical application and success, to collaborate with clients in pursuit of shared goals.”

As a confused look washes over his prospect’s face Bob attempts to “clarify” his answer:

“In other words Sir, Leader Coaching’s services meet the expectations of business leaders who recognize the value of purposeful investments in human capital – often beginning
with themselves – as a means of preparing and aligning people and systems in pursuit of growth.”

At that, Mr. Sharp Dressed Man says, “O…K. Well, um…thanks. I…uh…I’ll…I’ll keep that in mind.” And leaves, never to be heard from again.

Can you blame him?

Don’t succumb to the disease of “corporatese”
Leverages a proprietary coaching framework? Purposeful investments in human capital? Aligning people and systems in pursuit? Say what? I ask you, can you imagine yourself EVER talking to a client or prospect in this manner? No, of course not. And neither would you put such gibberish on your website. (You wouldn’t, would you?) Yet, save for the first four words of the second quote, all of the highlighted copy was taken, verbatim, from an active website. A website written almost entirely in “corporatese.” (I’ve changed the company name  in order to protect the guilty.)

Corporatese, as you might expect, is the collective term for the jargon, phrases and fad words many writers use to make their communications and businesses seem more substantial and important. NOT!

Those who write in corporatese love a paradigm, whether it’s new, shifting or otherwise. And they would never think of simply using something when they can leverage it. Those who write in corporatese are really into activities such as aligning people - or should it be aligning human capital? One would think you get major corporatese points for using leveraging the phrase aligning human capital. (What a warm, fuzzy term. Who among us does not enjoy being referred to as human capital?)

For sure, human capital has been overwhelmingly embraced by the corporatese community, with more than three times the number of search engine hits as you get for even paradigm shift.

People Human capital, we have a new leader in the clubhouse!

But I digress – and yes, I’m lathering on the sarcasm.

So if corporatese is the problem, what is the solution? I’ll present two. One is a strategy, the other is a tool.

To highlight the strategic solution I’ll turn to Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, surprisingly enough, the A-Team’s Mr. T.:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.” – Mark Twain

“It is not enough to write so that you can be understood; you must write so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood [emphasis added].” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Or, if you prefer your tenets to be even more succinct, here’s how the A-Team’s Mr. T puts it:

“Don’t gimme none o’ that jibba-jabba!”

Whether you prefer the more eloquently worded advice of Twain and Emerson or the more terse counsel of Mr. T, acting on the wisdom of these words will serve you, your writing and your readers well. For example, it’s hard to imagine that the writer cited earlier would have churned out such “jibba-jabba” if he’d had the above quotes within eyesight or top-of-mind when writing.

A helpful but overlooked tool.
Now, on to the writing tool solution, which I’m happy to report is – literally – right at your fingertips. As everyone knows, the “Spelling & Grammar Check” feature in Microsoft Word identifies obvious spelling and grammatical errors. In some instances it even offers suggested revisions. In addition, once the application has finished checking your text a window pops up. This window gives you a readout on ten different components of your writing, the four most helpful being -

  1. Words per sentence (average)
  2. Percentage of passive sentences
  3. Flesch Reading Ease score
  4. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Let’s review why paying attention to these four readouts can improve your writing:

  • Words per sentence – In general, the longer the sentence, the harder it becomes for your reader to follow along. That’s not to say you should always write in short sentences. What you should strive for is a variety that makes for interesting and engaging reading. But if the sentences in your text are, on average, 25 words long, then your copy probably isn’t as  readable as it should be.
  • Percentage of sentences written in the passive voice - If your objective is to engage, involve and influence your reader, almost always the case with any type of marketing copy, then write predominantly in the active voice. Note the difference between, “Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated…” and “When you click the button, we immediately generate your order….” The former reads like Christmas party conversation with the dull, nerdy guy in the IT department (not that all IT guys are dull and nerdy) while the latter reads like you’re talking with the energetic, service-focused gal in sales.
  • Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score - The FRE score was developed in 1948 by author and writing consultant Rudolf Flesch. Widely considered one of the most accurate readability formulas you can use, the FRE score is based on a range of 0-100, with lower values for harder text and higher values for easier text. For example, a typical issue of Reader’s Digest earns an FRE score of around 65 while Time Magazine scores in the low 50′s. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Addressscores a 74.2.

    By comparison, the “about us” text in the consultant/prospect scene has an FRE score of 16.8 and the “clarification” text scores 14.8. In both instances the copy is  less readable than even a U. S. tax form.

  • Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) – The FKGL score, developed by Rudolf Flesch and John P. Kincaid, is basically an add-on to the FRE score. As its name implies, this score indicates the number of years of education generally required to understand your text. And generally speaking, you want to write at a level ranging from the seventh to the tenth grade. For example, most newspapers in the U.S. are written at a seventh to eighth grade level. By contrast, in the consultant/prospect example the “about us” line is written at a grade level of 16.8 while the grade level for Bob’s “clarification” line is 21.4. Not good.

But enough about how bad the writing is in our staged scene. How might one make it better? I’ll tackle the “about us” line. (For the “clarification” copy the best I could come up with is to edit it out entirely.) Currently, the line reads, “Leader Coaching leverages a proprietary coaching framework, proven over years of practical application and success, to collaborate with clients in pursuit of shared goals.” I would recast it to read as follows

“Leader Coaching uses a proven coaching system to help clients manage their people and their business for greater profit.”

I’ve edited the sentence down from 24 words to 19, raised the FRE score to 49.5 and lowered the grade-level to 11. “But,” you might say, “you left out the fact that the firm uses a ‘proprietary’ system.’” My retort to this point is that the reader doesn’t care about this fact.

Proprietary is not a “YOU” word, it’s a “ME/WE/US” word, as in… “Oh, we need to let people know that this is a proprietary system that we developed ourselves. “Having that fact posted on your website might be good for your corporate and personal ego but it doesn’t mean anything to the prospect visiting your website.

Leverages a proprietary coaching framework…purposeful investments in human capital…aligning people and systems in pursuit of….

…why do people write this way?

I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that it’s flat out bad communication and bad communication is bad for you, bad for your reader and, if you’re communicating in a commercial way, bad for business.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even if you’re not a professional writer, even if you’re not a particularly good writer, if you’ll –

  1. Keep the words of Twain, Emerson -  and yes, even Mr. T. – within eyesight when writing
  2. Take full advantage of the helpful tool that is, literally, right at your fingertips…

…you CAN and you WILL write better.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

© 2010 Ernest Nicastro

NOTE: I am presently working on a Special Report along the same lines as the material in this article. But it will include much more content. If you’d like a copy of the Report, which should be ready in a couple of weeks, send an email to enicastro@positiveresponse.com with a subject line of Report.

Recommendations for additional reading:

Simple & Direct, by Jacques Barzun

Clear Writing With Mr Clarity Blog

Seven Score And Seven Years Ago: Writing Lessons We Can Learn From Lincoln’s Masterpiece

It is a crisp, clear autumn afternoon. About 1:30. A full sun hangs in a bright blue sky. A large crowd mills about.

The date: November 19th. The year: 1863. The place: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are there. You jostle for position. You strain your neck to get a glimpse. You cup your hand behind your ear…as the 16th President of the United States steps to the center of the platform and begins his “few appropriate remarks.”

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Thus begins one of the most memorable pieces of American prose ever written. Pick any adjective of praise to describe The Gettysburg Address and it’s probably appropriate. Elegant. Eloquent. Evocative. Profound. Poetic. Poignant.

Small Words, Big Impact

Study Lincoln’s words though and you may be surprised to discover that most of them are just one syllable. To be exact, two hundred and twenty out of two hundred and seventy one. Yet there is not another speech in American history that more movingly communicates its message. If ever there was a case to be made for small words being more effective tools of communication, The Gettysburg Address makes it. As writers, marketers and communicators that’s not the only lesson Lincoln’s masterpiece teaches us.

In the balance of today’s post, I’d like to point out a few more.

The Central Idea of the Occasion

The day after the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies Lincoln received a letter at the White House. It was from Edward Everett. Everett was the most renowned orator of his generation and it was he, not Lincoln, who had been the featured speaker at Gettysburg. By all accounts, Everett had delivered a stirring 2-hour oratory replete with a virtuoso verbal re-enactment of the battle itself. And yet, his letter to Lincoln read in part:

Edward Everett

“Dear Mr. President,

“I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

 

Everett’s correspondence highlights a key point. The Gettysburg Address communicates so effectively because it captures, encapsulates, and illuminates a monumental moment in American history. It does so with clarity and brevity while at the same time informing us and fully engaging our emotions. (Clarity, brevity, informing the target audience while fully engaging their emotions. What marketing professional wouldn’t kill for copy like this?) A good example of this clarity and brevity can be found in the opening lines of Lincoln’s conclusion wherein he says:

“But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

With these two eloquent lines Lincoln simply, effectively and beautifully articulates “the central idea of the occasion.” And, offers a moving and prayerful tribute to those who struggled there.

 

A Great Writer At Work

In a February, 1991 Life Magazine essay, Garry Wills wrote: “Abraham Lincoln is our only Chief Executive who became a great president because he was a great writer.” To study The Gettysburg Address is to witness a great writer at work. A writer in full command of his talent who skillfully uses such rhetorical devices as parallelism, antithesis, alliteration and repetition. But befitting a man we love and cherish for the warmth, wit and humanity his life and words communicate…in the Gettysburg address Lincoln the writer shows an attentive heart and keen ear for just the right word, just the right phrase.

A few examples:

“conceived in liberty,” “engaged in a great civil war,” “a final resting place,” “who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” “the last full measure of devotion,” “a new birth of freedom.”

In studying the Gettysburg Address we gain an acute awareness of all the power and all the beauty that great prose can possess. Meant to dedicate a graveyard its rich rhetoric reverberates with the rhythm and imagery of life. This rhythm and imagery, Lincoln’s immense technical skills as a writer and his ever attentive heart and keen ear for the right words – these are key reasons why Lincoln’s words live on, as vibrant, as real, as meaningful to us today as they were that November day in Gettysburg, seven score and 6 years ago. Indeed, they speak to, they connect with, they touch “the better angels of our nature.”

As marketing professionals, business owners and salespeople, our livelihood and well-being depend in large part on our ability to communicate. And as we prepare for our next marketing campaign, marcom project, sales presentation or public speaking opportunity we would do well to call to mind the lessons to be learned from Lincoln’s masterpiece.

We should, for example:

  • Use a predominance of small, easily understood words
  • Focus on the “central idea of the occasion”
  • Write with with clarity and brevity, with an attentive heart and keen ear for the right words
  • Infuse our communications with rhythm, imagery and life.

If we consistently do this, while it’s doubtful we’ll make history, it’s a good bet that our campaigns, projects and communications will be duly noted and well received.

© 2010 Ernest Nicastro

Recommendations for additional reading:

The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, by Ronald L. White Jr.
Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency And The Power of Words, by Douglas L. Wilson

Welcome To Earnest Words!

My name is Ernest Wayne Nicastro. My father chose Ernest to honor a beloved cousin, who died young, that he spent Summers with as a child. My mom was a big John Wayne fan. I can even do a decent impersonation of “The Duke.” That said, I’ve never been particularly enamored with my name. I suppose circumstances have had a lot to do with that.

I entered grammar school right about the time that a certain Fidel Castro rose to power in Cuba. My classmates, even teachers to some extent, had fun with Nicastro. “Oh, like Castro in Cuba, right?” Aside from that, there was the dorky-looking kid on My Three Sons named Ernie.

During my high school years another high-profile Ernie entered the national consciousness: Ernie, from Bert and Ernie and Sesame Street fame. “Hey Ernie, where’s Bert?” Yep, I’ve heard that one, oh, at least a couple (thousand) times. Segue to my adult years and along comes  the obnoxious, goofy, fictional character and advertising pitchman Ernest P. Worrell, memorably portrayed by the late Jim Varney. In addition to a whole slew of commercials which aired with great frequency in my viewing area, Varney starred in a number of Ernest movies, including such cinematic “masterpieces” as Ernest Goes To Camp, Ernest Goes To Jail, Slam Dunk Ernest and Ernest Scared Stupid.

You getting the picture? Ernest/Ernie + Nicastro = Not cool. And, well, we all like to think of ourselves as cool, right?

Despite all this, there have been times when I’ve made my name pay off for me. A number of years ago, I wrote and performed an award-winning speech about the trials and tribulations of going through life with my name. Entitled The Triviality of Being Ernest, this speech took top prize in Toastmasters International’s Humorous Speech Contest for District 40. It was great making people laugh.

My biggest laugh came, fittingly, at the end of the speech.  After about six minutes recounting the trials, tribulations and triviality of going through life with my un-mellifluous moniker I dramatically announced my personal re-branding using the Italian pronunciation of my last name:”Introducing for the first time, in public, ‘E. Nicastro!’”

After the big announcement I pointed out the “cool factor” associated with being Italian, including: the popularity of Italian food and the success and acclaim of certain Italian-American athletes and other famous Italians. Then, I closed with the following:

“I chose ‘E’ because it’s short, simple, very difficult to misspell or mispronounce and it’s good psychology. When I hear the initial ‘E’ I think of ‘E’ as in exciting, ‘E’ as in enticing, ‘E’ as in entertaining…and of course (pointing at the temple of my head a la The Scarecrow from the Wizard of OZ ) ‘E’ as in…intelligent.”

Whadda’ you think? Oh. Well. Uh, I guess you had to be there.

So here we are in 2010 and “E.” has decided to enter the ranks of the bloggerati and once again I may have found a positive way to use my not so cool first name. Earnest Words works as the title for my blog for a couple of different reasons. First, it’s obviously a homophone for my name and some people spell their name that way and these are my words so that all adds up nicely. Second, and more importantly, is that the phrase itself states exactly what I plan to present here: earnest words.

Within these earnest words – from me, you, and others – the aim is that you will find thoughts, ideas, tips, advice and recommendations that you can use to advance your career, grow your business or both.

Go to dictionary.com and you’ll find the following definition of earnest:

  1. serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous: an earnest worker.
  2. showing depth and sincerity of feeling: earnest words; an earnest entreaty
  3. seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention.
    –noun
  4. full seriousness, as of intention or purpose: to speak in earnest.

Earnest does, in fact, describe me quite well. I do bring an earnestness to any project I work on, any endeavor I undertake. Earnest, come to think of it, also applies to most of the characters John Wayne played – and, to the man himself. Now that’s a connection I’ve never made until this very moment. Wow! Blogging has paid off for me already! So maybe mom and dad knew what they were doing after all. Probably not, but it’s nice to think that.

My name is Ernest Wayne Nicastro and I thank you for reading and for letting me share a few earnest words with you in this blog’s first official post. Please check back soon.

That’s my take. What’s yours?