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Would You Tell Me a Secret?

The truth is, you already have.

Don’t worry, I have one for you too and it’s related to what you’ve shared with me.

The secret you’ve shared has to do with the subject line of this week’s intersection. You see, at C.Fox, the contributing writers to the intersection have a friendly—more or less—on-going competition. In addition to the intersection’s main goal of sharing useful communications insights and perspectives, we like to see which writer achieves the best intersection “open-rate.” And as most of you know, open rate has a lot to do with the quality of the subject line in a communication like the intersection. So simply by opening or not opening this week’s edition, you’ve helped me become a better writer, and I thank you for that. (And don’t worry, in a future post, I’ll be sure to let you know if I achieved any short-term bragging rights with this one.) But the secret I want to share with you is about questions.

The secret is…you need to ask them.

Not all at once. Not all the time. Not at random. But you need to ask questions of yourself and of others you hold in high regard, because the answers can make you a smarter, better communicator.

There are of course pieces of information we’re expected to know in each of our fields. Look no further than presidential candidate Gary Johnson for evidence of that. But there is really no replacing the value of asking good, well-structured questions with purpose. Those types of questions are a key way that we challenge each other at C.Fox to provide the best guidance to clients and develop the best creative concepts. Knowing what to ask, and when to ask it, are vital considerations in the focus groups and in-depth interviews that we moderate. When we ask smart questions, we get smart answers and they lead us to be even better communicators.

So give it a try. Before your next Board meeting or staff retreat, think about the questions you need answered before and during those sessions. Then, ask them and listen closely to the answers. You’ll be better prepared for important engagements and respected by your peers and staff for taking the time. And you’ll have compiled a wealth of new wisdom in the process.

Why the KISS Principle is More Important than Ever

The KISS Principle: Keep it simple, stupid.

This delightfully abrupt design concept, reportedly introduced by the U.S. Navy in 1960, has long been a guiding rule of engineers and architects, product developers and copywriters alike. And regular readers of the C.Fox intersection know how firmly we hold to the KISS Principle, whether we’re discussing creating sharp digital content, impactful public speaking, or coining the perfect soundbite.

The latest example of why simple writing is important comes via a quirky York University study, which set out to prove conventional wisdom that no one ever reads terms-of-service agreements:

The researchers made up a social networking site … and asked their study participants to sign up for it. Before they could, though, they’d have to agree to the site’s terms and services. Hidden within this agreement document were two strange requests: Is it cool if we share all your information with the NSA? Oh, also, we’re going to go ahead and take your firstborn child as a form of payment, okay?

[As it turned out:] Most people — 98 percent — didn’t even notice the firstborn clause, and just one person out of the 500 study volunteers objected to the NSA policy.”

So, what should we take from this, other than a reminder to read ALL of the fine print?  How about an equally important reminder for all of us as writers that people are far more predisposed to scanning, vs. thoroughly reading any kind of content. (Even this post is no exception. Did you get that?)

So…KISS and write accordingly. This means:

  • Swapping multi-paragraph tomes of information for chunky, bulleted sections of text to draw the reader in to the most important elements of your message.
  • Helping your reader retain complicated concepts by grouping them via the “Rule of Three”.
  • Remembering that keeping the most critical information “above the fold” isn’t advice just for newspaper editors. (As Amy Schade of Nielsen Norman Group writes, “We don’t go to a [web]page, see useless and irrelevant content, and scroll out of the blind hope that something useful may be hidden 5 screens down.”)

If you’re a communicator worth your salt, you already know that the KISS Principle is important. But adhering to it in your writing, at every opportunity, is what makes the difference between wasted moments and critical opportunities to move your mission forward.

What’s Smart about the Dumbing Down of Language

In a recent Salon post, writer Erin Coulehan laments the dumbing down of language—a trend that, according to a new study, directly relates to one’s tendency to consume digital content. The study, which analyzed the writing samples of MBA students, found that “students who consume primarily digital content (such as Reddit and Buzzfeed) had the lowest writing complexity scores, while those who often read literature and academic journals had the highest levels of writing complexity.”

Beyond mourning the internet’s influence on writing style (“Not reading [classic literature] makes us sound pretty dumb and unrefined”), Coulehan seems far more perturbed by its harmful impact on “social perception and empathy.” She writes: “How sad for younger generations to not know the value of reading a text and subsequently becoming completely enthralled by the way the words make you feel. It seems we’re increasing exposed to gimmicky videos and emoji, full of sound and furious images of eggplants or crying –through-tear faces, symbolizing nothing.”

With respect, I must wholeheartedly disagree.

Now, I’m not exactly unbiased about emoji usage, which indeed seems to be taking over our linguistic ways of life. (Case in point: I recently texted the “grimace emoji” to my Cleveland Cavaliers-loving mother as a way to smooth over her complaints that I sent my son to school wearing a Golden State Warriors jersey.)  But emojis aside, I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned here about the simplification of language—and it’s all about human connection.

The thing is, whether it’s the prevalence of memes, short phrases, or the recent proliferation of single words intended to convey strong feelings—paring down our communications to the simplest emotional elements works. And while obviously not appropriate ways to communicate in all settings, these devices remind us just how important it is to break through the clutter of an information-saturated world and connect with our audience at an emotional level.

In a recent New York Times essay about the proliferation of the word “thing” (and the ironic observation that “calling something ‘a thing’ is … itself a thing”), writer Alexander Stern agrees.

“It would be easy to call this a curiosity of language and leave it at that,” he writes, “[But] My assumption is that language and experience mutually influence each other. What might register as inarticulateness can reflect a different way of understanding and experiencing the world.”

In sum, although no one’s suggesting that you incorporate cat GIFs into your communications plan, I do encourage you to work harder to connect with your target audiences using the power of simple words.  As we know all too well in these troubling times, doing so can be a very effective way to leverage human connection for the greater good.

Going to Extremes in Communications

How a Busy Catalog and a Blank Sheet of Paper Can Make You a Better Communicator.

Every day when I return home, my mailbox has two, three or sometimes four catalogs in it, and they’re rarely addressed to me. I’m sure there’s some direct marketing algorithm gone awry, but it really seems a costly error.

Regardless, one such mailbox trip this week took me back to my university days—to a creative writing class where I was given two writing assignments, one on each end of the communications spectrum. The first assignment had to do with catalogs. If you’ve ever been compelled, or required in my case, to read through a catalog, I’m fairly certain you’ve stumbled across a few mistakes in the writing. Such was the point of my professor’s assignment, which was to examine catalog copy for spelling and grammar errors, and clumsy word choices. Then, once we found all of the errors, we needed to fix them in the space allowed. Her point was to force us to confront, and not be afraid of writing in constrained spaces, as there is always room for proper communication.

The same professor swung us to the other extreme with her next assignment. This one involved examining a single sheet of white computer paper, and then writing no less than two typed pages describing it. That’s essentially 800 words to describe millimeter-thin nothingness. Not easy. So what’s a communicator to do? We had to establish the obvious, then look for the details which others might overlook. Focus on the things that others might take for granted. When given space to write on a complicated topic, we must find a way describe it more clearly than anyone else can.

The combination of these two exercises is an important intersection in the power of good writing. When you put them together in practice, one can come to take a diagnostic view of almost any topic and communicate succinctly about it. That’s when we win as communicators. Whether a simple or complicated topic, when you can appreciate and value perspective, and apply discipline in the delivery of the message, you’ll be well on your way to A+ communications.

It’s Not What They Said, It’s What We Heard

This week’s Republican debate showed us why so many analysts are finding boxing analogies irresistible.  Whether during the “Undercard” (a term almost exclusively used to describe a match between lesser known boxers) or the “Main Event” (reserved for candidates who had garnered at least 3% of support in public surveys), the candidates seemed intent on displaying their verbal sparring skills.

The prime-time candidates faced a crowded stage, five (!) CNBC questioners, and a two-hour limit demanded by the front-runners du jour, Donald Trump and Ben Carson. With high stakes and ever-increasing pressure to score political points, candidates who maximized the economy of words won the day.

What did we hear from the candidates this week? Jeb Bush wants you to know he’s a mature adult who works well with others. Chris Christie won’t take guff from anyone. Marco Rubio is a living, breathing American success story. Carly Fiorina believes she’s uniquely positioned to go toe-to-toe against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.  These may or may not have been the messages each candidate was hoping to deliver, but that’s generally what we heard.

Indeed, in hearing these statements, we were reminded of Republican pollster Frank Luntz and his book, “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” In it, Luntz argues that a careful choice of words affects what we buy, who we vote for and even the issues we believe in.

We’re bipartisan in our recognition of smart communications strategies, and at C.Fox, we quote Luntz often in our media and presentation trainings. “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” is a message we consistently relay when working with executives, nonprofit leaders, policymakers, or even when we take the podium ourselves. Because no matter how much you prepare to deliver your messages publically, what’s most important is how your audience receives and interprets it.

And while you may never have to “take the gloves off” like political candidates do, it’s best to remember that you’re still in the ring of competition and there’s someone out there ready to judge you – and your message – based not on what you say, but what they hear.

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The Economy of Words

How’s this for a safe bet. You will read at least one news article from your mobile device today.

Yep, according to Pew Research Center’s annual State of the News Media report, released this week, more visitors to top internet sites are getting their news from mobile devices, rather than desktop computers. (Pew also found that nearly half of all Web users learn about politics and government from Facebook.)

That information itself might not surprise you, but as the divide between mobile and desktop continues to grow, what could it mean for the content you’re creating on behalf of your own organization?

If you’re looking to impart a message to online readers, you’ve got to maximize the economy of words. The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo illustrates this concept in a famously titled Slate piece, “You Won’t Finish this Article: Why people online don’t read to the end.” As he observes, “We live in the age of skimming.”

What all that skimming means is that your web content creators need to choose words that work hard and have purpose. So here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Write with brevity: Don’t say in ten words what you can say more strongly with five.
  • Aim for active voice vs. passive: Passive voice has its place, but it can also weaken the precision of your writing. Favor active voice instead.
  • Go for impact: Pack as much meaning as you can into your first few lines of text. It can help ensure your reader sticks around for the end.

The more efficient and impactful your web content, the more likely you are to hook your readers from the start. That can help them learn more about your work and mission, drive them to act, and get them to come back and do it all again.

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What’s in Your Fine Print

Flip through just about any magazine and you’ll probably come across a couple prescription drug ads—with a LOT of fine print. That fine print is necessary, of course, listing risks and possible complications, but it’s the volume of words, the word choice, and the tone of these fine print mazes that’s led so many of us to glaze over at the sight. Good news is, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, the FDA is finally doing something about it.

Earlier this month, the FDA released its revised draft guidance for consumer-directed print advertising and promotional labeling. It’s the latest in the agency’s efforts to make it easier for consumers to get value from the risk information in prescription medication ads. The effort is part of a 90-day open comment period to collect feedback before making any changes to current requirements.

Given the intersection we see between critical content and consumer engagement, let me be among those to offer open comments with a few of my own:

1. If it’s worth taking the time and space to put words on a page or label, it’s worth taking the time to make them easy to read, understand, and act on. Fine print doesn’t need to be complicated print.

2. All communications, no matter how fine their print, should be developed with a clear purpose and intended message firmly in mind.

3. It’s not all about the words. It’s about their order, sequencing, organization, layout, and their scarcity.

4. The best writers put themselves in the shoes of their readers—the readers most in need of the information and those most likely to struggle with it. Next time you sit down to craft a new document, think more specifically about how your intended audience will interpret the information.

5. Credibility does not have to mean complexity. Simple, well-written language can be just as powerful with the added benefits of being understandable and actionable.

For decades, American educators have been struggling with how to address disparities in literacy levels. It’s our job, as professional communicators, to press on the other side of the issue. We must bring language to people that can be widely grasped and acted upon. It’s a challenge that the FDA must now take on, too. When faced head on, though, it can lead to differentiation and more informed constituents.

Maybe it’s time to examine how your “fine print” stacks up?

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