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Mrs. Halverson taught my fourth grade class. I fell in love with writing that year. And I am pretty sure it was because of the way she made writing and story telling come alive.

When I think back to the lessons I learned that year, three stand out that remain just as relevant now for me and my work. And because so many of us must write, blog, communicate and create content, these three things are great reminders for almost all of us grown-ups (who know a lot but sometimes forget the basics we learned in the first place.)

So, next time you need to create content or write something, take some tips from Mrs. Halverson and do these three things:

Start with a topic sentence

When you use a topic sentence to start each paragraph, it helps you write the rest of the paragraph. Here’s how you do it: Pick the one idea you want to get across in that paragraph. And then summarize it. That becomes the topic sentence. It is most convenient as the first sentence. Like the CEO of the paragraph, the topic sentence sets the tone, the direction and tasks of the other sentences in the paragraph.

A topic sentence helps readers, too. A good topic sentence directs the focus of a paragraph and signals what’s coming. It prepares the people reading your work for the information the rest of the paragraph gives. That means readers don’t have to work as hard to grasp the meaning. Why? Because all of the thoughts in a paragraph relate to each other and flow coherently from the main thought that started it.

(By the way, both of the paragraphs above start with a clear topic sentence that makes one point. And the rest of the sentences support that point with additional detail. Easier to write. Easier to read!)

Spot barks

Nothing is simpler in writing English than using this construction: subject/verb. Grass grows. Children play. Sun rises.

Even with an object that says what the subject did to (or with or about) something, it’s still joyfully simple. I cut the grass. The children played outside. The sun rose today.

When you get tangled up in a sentence and don’t know how to make it better, break it into more than one sentence. Then start each one with a subject followed by a verb. I promise you that doing this will let you make your point. It will also let your readers understand your point.

Here’s an example (with a topic sentence)

Fear hides sometimes. We dread change. We avoid new things. We form habits. And we like routines. We prefer what we know. Fear lurks in the unknown. We don’t always admit our fears. But our fears govern us, nonetheless. Sometimes we know it. Other times we don’t. Things that stay in the shadows stay scary.

Make it fun

Kids write stories for fun. They use their imaginations. They dream up amazing characters. And they love to tell people about their ideas. Remember that? Part of what made me love writing in Mrs. Halverson’s class was that it was just so darn fun.

We can all choose to reclaim some of that joy. Shake off some of the weight about writing that’s piled on top of many of us. Create like you can’t wait to show somebody. And have some fun.

Here’s another post about what to do when you get stuck for ideas.

Let me know if these three lessons help. I blog and Tweet about creating good content, among other things. So if you liked this post, please follow me for more ideas. I’m on Twitter here.

A recent post of mine offered clear, simple and powerful words to substitute for jargon. Some of the comments and people who shared the post on Twitter and other social media sites questioned whether replacing jargon with shorter, more straightforward words would dilute meaning or even undercut the credibility of a company’s message.

I disagreed. But, I figured I should back up that assertion with examples drawn from real life.

So I trawled real corporate press releases sent out last week. Quickly, I found several examples that crossed my eyes and muddled my brain. (And I spent more than a decade as a financial journalist.)

Below, I’ve reprinted snippets from eight of those media releases. In each case, I rewrote the wordy phrases and trimmed the jargon and extra stuff. I used active verbs and shorter sentences. Each example is different, but the concept is the same.

The idea is to show how to strip away unneeded or fuzzy words and distill meaning. And this isn’t relevant for just PR professionals. This habit is essential for bloggers or others who want people to share their posts, buy their services or products or do something else they urge. In today’s economy, that’s pretty much all of us.

If our audience has to spend much time figuring out what we mean, they will move on and we will lose out. Why make it hard for them? And that’s what the eight press releases had in common: it was harder than it should have been to get the message. Great content is easy to read.

Sentences from real press releases

In these eight examples, the original phrasing from the release appears first, in gray italics. Then my rewrite appears below that, in black.

I kept each rewrite to just one phrase or sentence. For some of the rewrites, adding another short sentence might have helped convey the meaning more precisely. Nonetheless, the rewrites are definitely clearer. And they are jargon-free.

You can judge for yourself whether you think anything gets diluted.

1. Original: “The website is now fully operational with the ecommerce functionality all set up.”

1. Rewritten: The company has launched its website.

2. Original: “We are continuing our efforts that we began last fiscal year to pursue patent infringers in an effort to monetize the value of our extensive patent portfolio.”

2. Rewritten: To protect our many patents and the income they bring, we pursue violators. 

3. Original: “In the fourth quarter we paced our promotional activities to avoid the holiday season promotion clutters in the market.”

3. Rewritten: We ran holiday promotions earlier this year to increase their effectiveness.

4. Original: “The new company and its management team has invested a substantial amount of their time and effort in laying the groundwork for the company’s unique value proposition to its potential customer base while setting the stage for developing its brand of products.

4. Rewritten: The new company is developing its marketing plan. 

5. Original: “We believe the confusion associated with our warrant accounting has caused some potential investors to eschew the company due to the complexity of our earnings calculations.”

5. Rewritten: Investors want simpler accounting for our warrants.

6. Original: “The company’s customer-centric business model provides a strong value proposition to consumers.”

6. Rewritten: Customers like the company’s prices and service.

7. Original: “We are cognizant that we must address our debt situation and our pending line of credit maturity but we ultimately believe striving to improve our core business is a fundamental component of a solution for all parties in this regard.”

7. Rewritten: We will cut the company’s debt as we build business.

8. Original: “Questions may be poised* to management by participants on the call and in response the company may disclose additional material information.”   (* yes, the release used the word poised instead of posed)

8. Rewritten: Executives will answer questions during the call.

This phrase is just two words long, but what do they mean? Not to mention how, and why?

Here’s another post about how to make writing clearer and more direct.

Two pointers to keep in mind whether you are writing or editing:

  • Avoid phrases and prepositions wherever possible
  • Use active, strong verbs

Often, legal or other executives will resist simple language. It’s as if they take comfort in the convoluted. If you find yourself feeling that pressure, show this list to the jargon-pushers. Ask them which version they’d rather read. They might be surprised. You might get more cooperation in your quest for clarity.

Like any habit, scouting for extra words and jargon that clutter writing takes practice. Yet, it is a skill that can be learned. And mastering it will help you sell, persuade, reach and prompt action.

If you liked this post, please follow me on Twitter and through this blog. I’d like to hear your comments, too.

Today was one of the busiest days for my blog since I started it more than a year ago. Part of that is because PRDaily picked up a post of mine that initially ran on this blog last month. (I am going to start contributing to that awesome site regularly with original posts. Thanks, Michael Sebastian!)

But part of the reason for traffic and clicks, I’m sure, is because I got ripped off by a PR agency that knows better — or damn well should.

When I saw that this agency posted my work, literally word for word, as its own, I sent a comment to the blog. The “moderator” didn’t approve it. Shocking, I know.

I decided not to blow off this one. We creative types who dream up and send out our content have every right not to have it stolen. Yet so often, that’s exactly what happens. Many bloggers and others have weighed in on this, including my friend Peggy Fitzpatrick in this wonderful post last month on her blog. Still, it seems as if the stealing is only growing. It sure is easier now than ever to do it.

When my feisty #takeitdown Tweet went out, many members of the Twitter community rallied to my defense and also fussed and Tweeted about and to the offender (neither of whose Twitter handle nor pilfered link I am going to include here because, while I want the burglars outed, I don’t want to give them exposure of any kind that would likely just boost their analytics.)

That support heartened me. It definitely drove extra traffic to my site. And, in a perverse way, it probably also increased my standing as a blogger and content creator because I was deemed good enough to rip off. After all, those counterfeiters fake only the high-end goods, right?

Set aside the extra attention and support that came from this incident, which totally reaffirmed my belief in the social web’s ability to self police and to form and support their community.

This is what I keep contemplating as a result of today: as content becomes easier to share, how can we find better ways to ensure creators and owners get the credit for their intellectual property and effort? After all, these are the folks who help keep the social web spinning.

I know nothing about programming or coding. But I do create a ton of content for clients, for my own blog, for other blogs like the best list blog on the web 12 Most. Can’t the whip-smart brains in our community make tighter seals of authenticity around the art and content being created and shared?

I see infographics, for instance, without Twitter handles or even names of the brainpower behind them. I try to track down the designer, where possible, and include them when I Tweet the art. I will often send great infographics through a Power Tweet on Twylah because of the turbocharged exposure it gives to Tweets, like this one. I figure if the Tweet I use to share an infographic is going to get a longer half-life, the creator of that content deserves at least as much of that as I do.

It sometimes comes down to leverage.

When I freelanced for major publications in the late 1990s, and electronic platforms were still pretty young, it made me laugh that I had to sign away my rights to the articles I pitched and wrote whether they ran on a long list of existing media channels “or any that hadn’t yet been created.” Those lawyers think of everything. What choice did I have?

If you work for an agency or creative, digital firm, it owns your work. That’s the trade-off for getting the protection and security of full-time employment with benefits. Because of its resources, the firm can also help guard against illegal use of the work.

However, if you run your own shop, as I do, then you get to keep control over the rights. But you also run greater risk of getting scavenged by the scum who swoop in and think that with a simple ‘cut and paste’ your work can be theirs, for free.

I have given up on the idea that stealers will be reformed. Have you seen the statistics on the percentage of college students who cheat on exams (including the gem about cheaters having higher grade point averages? Yuck!) Or the number of folks who cheat on their taxes, including those nominated to Cabinet positions?

So, I get that it’s going to keep happening. And I’m not stuck on this because it’s a morality issue, which it is.

This matters to me and to many tens of thousands of other creative people communicating, marketing, leading, influencing and coaching on the social web. Why? Because of the commercial threat that stolen intellectual property presents to all of us.

Like other content creators, I get business because of the quality of my content and the wheels that turn inside my brain that think up the ideas, strategies and concepts I offer clients. It angers me that vultures take what they want with no regard for their prey — us.

We can put tracking devices on cars. We can put microchips inside pets to help them be safely found, if lost. The beleaguered U.S. Postal Service, struggling to turn a profit, manages still to return letters gone astray, for goodness sakes! Why can’t we do a better job of making content harder to steal? I imagine that kind of technology would have many customers and make its inventor good money.

Yes, I know some tools exist, such as trackbacks and pingbacks. I use Google alerts and Topsy.com as well. But I am picturing something like an alarm that prevents the content from being lifted in the first place. Like one of those ink-filled security tags stores use. When a shoplifter gets a dress home and tries to snip off the device, ink explodes, rendering the garment unwearable.

Getting ripped off, and seeing my friends get ripped off, clearly still has me steamed.

So, thanks for visiting my blog on one of my busiest days and bearing with me as I think of, and strive to create, better solutions. It’s what I do for a living. Oh, and I’m happy for you to share this post. But don’t steal it…otherwise, I’ll shame you with Tweets, and so will some of my Twitter chums. (I picked up about 30 new followers today, too!)

When I started my consulting practice more than two years ago, my immersion into social media was, maybe, knee-deep. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time. I had joined LinkedIn in 2003, Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2009.

Still, the social web has exploded since then. And so has my insight — although the thing about social media is that it’s easy to feel as if you’re always playing catch up because it’s changing so quickly.

Anyway, about a year ago, I decided to redo my website. I wanted to make it more interactive, to highlight my blog better and to enable posts to be shared easily. It needed a big upgrade with respect to its social presence and capabilities.

The journey has been bumpy and difficult. And it’s not over, yet. But it sure has taught me a lot!

5 lessons I learned by redoing my website . . .

(that I wish I’d known beforehand!)

1. Make sure your programmer and designer listen, well, to what you want and can convert those ideas into action

I definitely should’ve spent more time interviewing former clients of the first designer I hired to make sure his skills and approach would translate into a partnership. He ended up designing the site he wanted. Not the one I wanted. And then kept trying to talk me into it, and told me that others he showed it to had liked it. Ugh. To the team redoing your website, you are the important audience. The project should feel like it completely meets your specs and communicates what you want it to.

2. Check their Twitter feeds and blogs

Find out: Do they communicate on a somewhat similar plane as you? Do they share as frequently as you want your posts Tweeted, Buffered and Pinned? Do they know the kind of tools and plug-ins that are on the cutting edge? Just because a designer or programmer is talented doesn’t mean he or she is going to really understand the way you’re going to use the site and need it to work. If your potential designer/programmer’s social presence clashes with yours, RUN. Tweets with expletives? A dead giveaway (and now I know.)

3. Study up so you know what you want

If I am going to have my house painted, I don’t need to know the best techniques. If I am going to get my taxes done, I am not going to brush up on the latest  regulations. But social is different. Week to week, things change. Tools come on the scene that make things better, easier, prettier. Trends shift in warp speed. This is not the area to outsource completely to a designer or programmer — even a good one. You’ve got to know the tools you want to be able to guide the process and site development so you end up with something close to what you envision. I’m not talking about being a dictator. But I am suggesting you have to a partner if you want to love the final product.

4. Know when to give up

I stayed with my first designer (who brought in a programmer I didn’t know — another big mistake) way too long. I knew he wasn’t getting what I wanted, or more precisely, wasn’t listening to what I wanted. I knew this wasn’t going to be the partnership I needed as tweaks to the site would crop up. I began dreading meetings and phone calls, which were not returned very promptly. I got to the point where I had paid for 3/4 of the job. And still hated it. Why didn’t I just leave earlier? That is my advice to you, if things are sliding steeply down hill… just start over. And get an escape clause in the contract that doesn’t leave you paying for work that didn’t meet your specs. I got out of the last payment, but not before it got ugly, which was unfortunate.

5. People skills matter as much as designing/programming skills

This is social media, for goodness sakes. The person or team you pick to redo your website needs to not just display professional social media skills. They have to display professional social skills, period. This project you are embarking upon is intensely personal, very important to your business, a reflection of you and responsible for driving customers and clients to act and buy. You need someone who totally gets that and can translate it into a site that works for you. And to get that, you need someone dedicated to working with you.

So, my website redesign odyssey is, finally, almost done.

I am thrilled with my new team, Yurich Creative. They did my new logo. They found fonts I love. They made awesome design suggestions. And they took my requests for plug-ins I wanted and the sharing capability I pictured. They didn’t know every tool, but were open to discovering and incorporating things into the design.

Their suggestions clearly showed that my descriptions of how I wanted the site to look and work resonated with them. It was wonderful! Ahhh.

I wish I could’ve made this progress without learning these 5 hard lessons. Some of them might look silly, in hindsight. But I learned. And I think that’s why this go-round went so much more smoothly.

And, hey, all of those hassles did provide a great idea for a blog post. Feel free to share it. I want others to learn from my mishaps, as well. And I would love to hear about your bloopers and triumphs with your own website redo. What lessons would you add to this list?

Fans of my blog know I love word clouds.

I use them in presentations, blog posts and even in reports. They show the proportional use of words, in a graphic form. And word clouds can give real power, visually, to analysis.

I decided to see what my Tweets looked like in a word cloud. Tagxedo has a great tool for this, which allows customization in many ways, including the word cloud’s layout, color, fonts and shape.

Using the tools on the site, I typed in my Twitter ID and downloaded information from my Tweets. I chose to remove (or to skip, as it’s called on the site) Twitter handles, so the words in the graphic included only those within my Tweets. Then, I played around with aesthetic aspects, picking fonts, colors and a shape I liked…

…a quote!   

With the specifications I chose, Tagxedo’s tool created a visual representation of my Twitter stream — what I Tweet, ReTweet, post and comment on in chunks of 140 characters or less! While simple and fun to do, this exercise actually serves a very useful purpose: it is, essentially, a visual representation of my brand on Twitter.

What about yours? Does it look like and say what you want it to?

  • meet your deadline
  • solve a problem
  • close a sale
  • win over a client
  • write a blog post
  • find hope after a bad day
  • rebound after a failure

Remember to be gentle and patient with yourself. Don’t give up, but don’t beat yourself up, either. Reach out for help if you need it. Give yourself credit for how far you’ve come.

Those people who you suspect have it all together, with no problems and no stumbles? Nope. Not true. But what they have done is figured out how to keep going and make it look like that. You can too.

Social media gives us access to many more people than we’d meet otherwise. It lets us be touched in more ways. It lets us be influenced by more people — as well as influence more people, ourselves.

Data matter. ROI matters. And analytics matter. Yes, all of that is true.

But this wonderful post by Jure Klepic shows why that’s just part of the story. “As marketers, we need to start focusing on measuring intent instead of just measuring online influence,” he says.

Kait Brand’s intense message of love and courage, which unfolds in this video, reached me through Jure’s blog. I don’t know either Kait or Jure personally, yet both have profoundly influenced me through social media. The more complicated technology gets, the clearer it is that community and simple, emotional connections matter more than ever.

How are you incorporating this reality into your social media outreach?

A breakdown in action that stops us from making progress on a project is known as writer’s block. I think a better term is idea block because it happens when we’ve run out of ideas for how to move forward.

To defeat writer’s block we don’t actually need to write. But we do need to get unstuck and break the block. It’s not in the hands. It’s in the brain. So hit the a reset button.

Here are 26 ways to get ideas flowing again.

1. Listen to music without lyrics, such as a Classical station on Pandora

2. Close your eyes and picture a peaceful, quiet scene

3. Breathe deeply

4. Jump for 60 seconds

5. Do a puzzle with numbers, like Sudoku

6. Sing

7. Skip

8. Hum to a happy song

9. Get up and make a cup of tea

10. Move your right elbow to your left knee and your left elbow to your right knee ten times

11. Pretend you’re in the second grade and explaining the project for Show and Tell, and do that out loud

12. Write out an affirmation and walk to mirror, look at your reflection and repeat it to yourself

13. Read a poem out loud

14. Climb up and down several flights of stairs and do a jumping jack on the landings

15. Call a good friend who knows nothing about the topic and have her  interview you about it for a few minutes

16. Think of the concept or project as a tree and visualize what needs to be the trunk and what would be branching off from it.

17. Sketch what you imagined in #16

18. Do something totally different and that interests you for ten minutes

19. Draw

20. Color

21. Watch a video with babies laughing 

22. Read some inspiring quotes 

23. March with your knees high, even better if done while listening to band music

24. Watch something short and funny

25. Stare out a window and let your mind drift

26. Keep a cheat sheet handy

These are some of the things I do. What works for you?

We all want customers or clients who are so thrilled with us (and our work, service or results) that they voluntarily and enthusiastically spread the word among their contacts and networks. But how does this work if you’re not a superstar brand with a ton of money to spend?

You need to do four things:

  1. Know your customers and what they want
  2. Give them something they perceive to have real value
  3. Don’t attach any strings or hide any gotchas
  4. Make it really fun

Here’s a quick case study based on an experience I had today that shows all four elements at work, really effectively.

We have an annual pass to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium. When it opened about two months ago, the aquarium seemed like it would be a super cool place to visit, especially during the months in Cleveland when it’s important to have    indoor options to keep kids busy and entertained. (We have two boys, ages 3 and 7.)  My husband went once with our 7-year old son. At the time, we decided to get an annual pass.

Here’s why: if our family of four went to the aquarium together, and bought tickets for just that day, it would cost us $75.80. (Tickets for adults are $21.95 and for the kids [aged 2-12] are $15.95. The annual pass is $130 for a family. So, if we go even two times a year, together, the pass becomes the better deal. I had planned to take the kids, too, but hadn’t fit it in, yet.

Last week, an email arrived announcing a special Toddler Time party for annual pass holders with children aged two to four. It would give the 40 or so respondents who RSVP’d access to the entire facility from 8 am to 10 am, before it opened to the public. But the little ones wouldn’t just get to roam, unfettered, around “40 tanks of all sizes, which are home to thousands of living creatures. From the Ohio-native brook trout, to the ferocious piranhas, as well as the sand tiger sharks that reach more than seven feet long,” as the aquarium’s website touts.

As well, the inaugural Toddler Time party featured music, dancing, touch exhibits staffed with plenty of friendly aquarists, snacks, juice, storytelling, Captain Neil (with a booming brogue) and friendly, furry costumed sea creatures to cuddle and wave at. Oh, and the lovely folks at the aquarium set out hot coffee for the parents, too.

We were truly treated to a special, private and fun time. It cost an additional $7. But I would’ve paid five times that and still felt like it was a deal. My three-year old, Max, had fun, too. (And he ate three packages of Teddy Grahams!)

The experience converted me into a brand ambassador, for sure. Here’s how the aquarium delivered on the four elements:

1.  Know your customers and what they want

The set up is exactly what works with this age group: space, movement, food, things to touch, music, animals and water. And, it was what the parents wanted, too. About a 1/3 or so of the caregivers at the Toddler Time party were guys/dads — a much bigger chunk than I expected. The morning timing and location (the aquarium is downtown) made it a great way to fit in some fun time and wrap it, smoothly, into the rest of the day. I did the same thing.

2.  Give them something they perceive to have real value

It wasn’t just the thoughtful additions of snacks, drinks and coffee or music, dancing, stories and characters that made this so great. The private access made us feel like we were truly special guests. The staff welcomed us warmly and showed us around with pride. It wasn’t at all crowded. We got to feel like we were being honored as annual pass holders. Smart! I’m not going to be the only one who talks this up, and that’s bound to entice more folks to become annual pass holders.

3.  Don’t attach any strings or hide any gotchas

No one made me sign anything or promise to send anything in. I wasn’t hounded to buy one thing. In fact, the gift shop was closed — which was a sigh of relief to this mom, who dreads the parade past the goodies in the grocery checkout line because of the pestering. The experience was all treat and no tricks, just the way it should be when a business is trying to show customers extra value. Problem is, it doesn’t always happen like this. Customers notice.

4.  Make it really fun

This is almost the easy part, if you nail the other three elements. The aquarium took care of everything, including making it fun for the grownups. I had such a good time that when I dropped off my son at day care, afterwards, still chatting about it, our caregiver said she’d look into joining so she could take the kids. (She looks after five toddlers and takes them to the zoo and concerts and plays for children, so this facility would be right in line with those fun excursions.) And I am blogging about it. And I’m posting pics on Facebook. And I’ll Tweet. How much in advertising would that publicity cost?

The upshot is this: if you want to turn customers into brand ambassadors, it takes forethought and planning. But it doesn’t take a ton of money or a huge marketing staff. The effort is mainly in giving your customers what they want as well as value and fun, like this Toddler Time party. I want to share about it through social media because I now consider myself an ambassador of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium and its brand.

When advising clients or others about seizing opportunities on social media or through other marketing channels, keep in mind the experiences you have when you are the customer. That’s a great way to test out the ideas to see if they are authentic and would work. This experience with the aquarium is just one example of how to do that.

My Twitter-data generated Infographic…yep, pretty much nails it!Image