Thursday, March 12, 2009

Getting More Attention

a conversation about powerful writing with tony leighton

CG: With all the chatter around us every day, and the easy or lazy lure of looking at video, how do businesses get people to read their written words and messages?

TL: By following the cardinal but constantly violated or bypassed rule of effective communications: understanding what the audience really wants to know or hear about, then talking to them about those issues, concerns or questions, not trumpeting your capabilities.

CG: Companies that fail to connect with an audience on their desired wavelengths usually lose those people, on the spot or ultimately. But why, after all this time, hasn't every marketer learned this?

TL: It’s all common sense, yet infrequently applied. The temptation is to sit down and laundry list your company’s capabilities; gather your “strengths” or benefits in one place and try to be impressive with them. When what you need to do is be empathetic. The other dynamic marketers miss the boat on is people don't read willingly, so it’s important to do other common sense things with this in mind.

One is to make it simple. People prefer to “speed graze.” They don't want to be forced to think much. Things that aren't simple force them, and that’s a turnoff to ‘reluctant’ readers…and the fact is most readers fall into this category.

CG: So you've gotten my attention as a reader, and achieving that is of course important. Now what else will keep me actively engaged in your story beyond this?

TL: It’s vital to apply a combination of neuroscience and
zeitgeist. By understanding where we are now in the evolution of the human brain and how it handles words in a busy environment. We must feed people information they way they want to digest it, and in the way their brains process it.

You have to give them the following: a good reason to pay attention; a context for the message that’s relevant and meaningful to them; and a story – which could be a single line – but with a plot, a twist and some suspense. Using the devices of novelists and great [literary] journalists to help sustain readers’ interest.

CG: Is there always a bona fide story to work with?

TL: When it’s something short, something more informational, like a series of facts, there may be no story per se. Then your obligation is to write it as cleanly, clearly and fluidly as you can.

But you can often squeeze a decent story from almost anything. How? By empathizing with the audience, and by asking bold questions or making bold statements at the beginning. You might state, for example: we have no time. Which puts forth a promise that something is going to follow, something that might suggest you're offering a solution to the issue.

People also appreciate the unexpected. Even in business writing, creativity is about ‘turning’ the story in a direction the reader doesn't expect. It’s removing their sense of the predictable, and giving them something more seductive. It’s saying things that have a ring of the profound.

CG: Speaking boldly, probingly, profoundly, but always with a basis for doing so, with a reality and relevancy and authenticity, yes?

TL: Absolutely. That’s a given.

CG: What about creating and/or sustaining a lasting relationship, marketer to customer. Beyond the written message being read and received. How do you best achieve this? So your audience connects with you again and again with equal attention, interest and enthusiasm?

TL: A clear, friendly, warm, informative and empathetic voice is always well appreciated, by anybody reading anything. If a company can consistently speak with this kind of voice, people come to expect it and to look for it; listen to it. A voice like this that people seek out is a tremendous asset.

CG: You appreciate companies that take their messaging cues from advertising agencies.

TL: Yes, because the best ad agencies have mastered the ever-evolving art of getting attention and leaving impressions. They know their audience. They speak clearly and conversationally. They appeal on an emotional level, with warmth, friendliness, flavor and wit. And they stay focused on one idea, and substantiate it – with compelling evidence.

CG: What companies out there are do you see as the most effective?

TL: The big tech companies have been the leaders with this approach. I'd point to Apple, I always point to Apple. They almost invented clarity and simplicity and cool thinking in corporate marketing. Google does it quite well; Cisco, too and others. They speak to their customers the wiser way I'm advocating.

Companies that communicate effectively are often innovators in other areas. Like GE. Car companies tend to do it. Look at most industry leaders; look at their web sites or marketing material. It’s all generally clear, conversational and empathetic.

CG: And the companies that don't get it?

TL: It’s interesting how many other companies don't get it, or aren't practicing it. They still hide in corporate-speak and jargon, which used to be called “business writing.” Well there’s no such thing. There’s just effective or ineffective writing, and degrees in between.

CG: You see a gap in the creative agency landscape? Talk to us about this.

TL: There’s an interesting gap between ad agencies and design / communications firms. Design firms almost never have writers on staff. Ad agencies do: they have and pay copywriters, the best ones, large salaries. These [agency] writers are remarkable thinkers, and have a great command of the language.

This ad agency model is one I have always felt missing from the mix. Which is why you and I are called upon to serve as these specialists, to do this thinking work, to strategize with our design counterparts on behalf of clients and serve as the storytellers, the story writers.

CG: The reality is most of the design groups can't swing having someone on staff full time. Or if they can, they can't afford, in-house, someone exceptionally capable and versatile enough. What would you suggest to these firms?

TL: That it’s essential to work with a writer who has ideas. Good, smooth writing is just the price of entry. What’s invaluable is a collaborator who understands businesses and audiences, who knows what to leave out as well as what to include. A savvy thinker who has a sense of strategic momentum; who can see the next step in the chess game and reflect that in a company’s messaging.

CG: That brings up the question of classic pitfalls companies and creative groups and writers make.

TL: There are big pitfalls, big tiger traps to avoid, including the dangerous, often fatal assumption that people are actually interested in reading whatever you want to communicate. They aren't. Or assuming you don't have to woo them You do. Or believing that useful writing is stringing words together pleasantly. It isn't. Effective writing is conveying ideas well dressed in language. The ideas are 90% of it.

CG: Is there any need to evolve the language marketers use? Would that help people engage versus glaze over which they do when they see and feel the same tired old style or approaches being used to reach them?

TL: That’s a good question. I'd say there’s no new language, there’s just plain English, without fat; presented in a way that’s easily absorbed; that tells a story and brings concrete images to the mind of the reader.

There is a language trap, though: using abstract language. It’s far less effective than concrete language.

So, instead of writing we have multiple strategic concerns going forward, it’s better to say this could be more challenging in the future. Instead of writing consumer reaction is regionally skewed, just say people like this product in Oregon.

Jargon is non-specific, flabby, and fails to shape ideas. It’s a hiding place, a refuge for people who haven't learned to write with clarity and simplicity and strategic thinking; where you shape an idea and make it memorable and edifying.

Writing simply and thoughtfully is difficult. It takes a long time to master this art.

CG: What startling questions should marketers and/or creative groups that help them market be asking right now?

TL: Do you still know how to reach people? Are you sure? How do you know? And what more can you be doing?

CG: As an exceptional and exceptionally well-seasoned writer/strategist, who has been on the front lines of business for decades, Tony, what’s the most essential advice you can offer?

TL: Learn what good writing and messaging is and settle for nothing less.

The two easy ways to do it: do some research and write down 10 rules of messaging that can never be broken; to serve as your guide and filter and litmus test. For example, 1) make it easy to read, 2) speak conversationally, 3) address the audience’s concerns etc. Rules that, when followed, result in a much stronger piece of communication. Rules that, when broken, weaken your piece.

Second, study how the very best companies communicate. Then emulate them. Anything Apple has ever written is a great starting point. I doubt most internal communications people actually do this. If any of your readers have, maybe they could share their experience.

Hold up, for example, some Apple writing alongside some internal writing being proposed for the annual report or a brochure or given communication. And see and understand the differences.

CG: Tony, a great deal of insight and practical advice to consider. I hope you'll come back and do another interview sometime, thank you.

Tony Leighton is a nimble thinker, strategist, writer and mentor, whose career spans decades of journalism, and high-level storytelling for leading Canadian and U.S. companies and institutions.

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