Improve Your Writing

  • Be Real. Connect to Emotion.

    I was recently evaluating competitor websites for a client. The client provides technology solutions for organizations that help people and safeguard our world–clothing the hungry, feeding the poor, supporting the natural environment.

    I went online at looked at tech websites and in short order, I felt my mind begin to numb from the onslaught of generic images of people in modern-looking offices fake-smiling at each other, promises about turbo-boosting my productivity sprinkled with computer terms I didn’t fully understand, and pop-ups featuring small pictures of photogenic customer service representatives between the ages of 25 and 35 offering to chat with me.

    And then I hit a site that grabbed my attention like none of the rest. It said things like, “WE CRACK CODES LIKE DAD JOKES. ONLY NO ONE BEGS US TO STOP CODING.” I could picture a bunch of corny, personable nerds I could relate to. They obviously didn’t take themselves too seriously, yet they worked with some impressive “fancy brands” as they called them.

    Clearly, this company was made of real, authentic humans, people who wouldn’t look down their nose at me if I didn’t understand a technology term or if I didn’t represent a particularly “fancy” brand. Had I been looking for a company to hire or partner with, I would have paid double to work with these guys.

    When it comes to communication, it is important to provide some technical details in certain situations, but when we focus on how we want people to feel, it helps us craft communication that uses the most powerful and persuasive force on the planet: human emotion. Rather than trying to impress potential clients, show them how you can help them and treat them with respect. If you can do that and make them laugh, they will love you (and hire you) for it.

  • Being Heard Amid the Covid-19 Noise

    Since the Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect, organizations have been forced to respond quickly to stress-inducing and constantly changing information. Some are succeeding brilliantly; others are failing miserably. Here are some tips to keep your audiences engaged and informed during this unusual time.

    Meet People Where They Are

    During a pandemic, people are emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. If your messages ignore this and you proceed with business as usual, you will miss an opportunity to build connection—and you’ll likely fail in getting your message across.

    Keep Messages Short and On Point

    When people are stressed, scared, or distracted, it is essential to communicate clearly and concisely. In written communication, this means crafting messages that resonate and then breaking them into bite-sized chunks so people can absorb them. As you sit down to write, do your best to read the room, as they say. Imagine you are trying to grab and keep the attention of an employee who has a toddler in need of a diaper change. Start your message with a recognition of their challenges, a note of appreciation, and then expectations.

    Also, keep things brief. It’s best to simplify complex information so people are compelled to comply with instructions or recommendations but not overwhelmed by all the details.

    Communicate Proactively

    Even when there’s nothing new to say, keep updates coming. Their frequency depends on your audience, of course, but ideally, you want to communicate often enough that people don’t start speculating on their own. Consider sending brief messages every few days or once a week to employees, and maybe every couple of weeks to other stakeholders.

    Consider sending brief messages every few days or once a week to employees, and maybe every couple of weeks to other stakeholders.

    Reinforce talking points (e.g., we’re complying with government orders to remain shuttered, but here’s how we’re supporting our employees/clients/community, or here’s what we expect for the weeks and months ahead.). You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do need to address people’s most urgent questions–even if that simply means saying something like, “We don’t know when we’ll reopen, but we have applied for the Payroll Protection Program to secure funding for those who are working from home.”

    Because people are distracted and sometimes disorganized, it’s important to create a central location where people can find your most recent updates–a webpage, Facebook page, or emails with a consistent subject line such as “Covid-19 Update.” Make it easy to stay informed.

    Remain Positive, Yet Honest

    Possibly the most important role of communication during a crisis like this is to build trust. No one knows exactly how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect our world going forward. All we can do is to plan for the most likely scenarios with the best information we have at any given time.

    And it is best to share updates with your key audiences along the way. Although it would be ill-advised to share details about every decision, it is wise to bring people along so they do not get a nasty surprise at the end. Clearly, this requires a nuanced approach, but keep in mind that the idea of protecting people by withholding information often backfires.

    If you need help communicating with your key audiences right now, let us know!

  • Designing Reports So People Want To Read Them

    Lifestyle freelance woman and laptop computer he examined the graph profit documet in coffee shop

    In this era of sound bites and social media posts, people aren’t used to slogging through long reports. Unfortunately, information doesn’t always fit in a tweet. If you must present a multi-page report, help your audience by using the following elements:

    • Table of contents (for reports longer than 10 pages long)
    • Executive summary (for reports longer than 10 pages)
    • Plenty of white space (i.e., margins and space between and around paragraphs and infographics)
    • Headers to signpost important topics
    • Bulleted lists
    • Infographics and other non-text means to convey your messages
    • Engaging photos
    • Page numbers

    I recently wrote a 20-page report for a client, detailing the findings from my research and recommending several courses of action. I wrote the report in Microsoft Word with plenty of section headers and bulleted lists to make it readable, but as I was proofreading it, I found myself wanting to skip over some of the longest sections. If I wanted to skip them, I knew my client would, too.

    If you run into this problem and you have the budget to hire a professional graphic designer, then send your report to the designer without delay. If you don’t have the funds (or time) for a designer, consider using a pre-designed template (Microsoft offers lots of them). Your final report may end up a few pages longer, but your readers will thank you for presenting the information so they can digest it.

    For my report, I added a cover page with an engaging title, a byline, and a photo that invited a second look. I created a table of contents to make it easier to find information. I added an executive summary so people in a hurry could absorb the main points quickly. And I used a template (and my graphic design experience) to highlight the information that mattered most.

    The great thing about hiring a professional graphic designer is that they know how to typeset reports so people can fly through the information effortlessly. Designers know how to use layouts, color, fonts, images and infographics to draw attention to the most important issues. A well-designed report won’t look designed; it’ll simply come across as professional, well-organized, and easy to read.

    If you need help writing a report, get in touch. If it’s a long one, I’ll have my graphic designer buddies lay it out for us.

  • Writing Clearly Requires Thinking Clearly

    Whether you’re responsible for communicating with colleagues in your organization, stakeholders who share your interests, or members of the public, chances are you often communicate via the written word, using email, reports, white papers, press releases, advertising copy and even text messages to share your ideas.

    The key to good writing is to pare away unnecessary information until you are left with only the essentials—the words and ideas that lead your audience down a clear path toward your goal.

    Before you start paring, be sure to capture all your key ideas. Create a “sloppy copy” (to borrow a phrase from a wonderful fourth-grade teacher named Johanna Lopez). Get your thoughts down on paper without worrying about how you will organize them.

    Then, consider your audience. Frame the key ideas from your sloppy copy in a way that puts your readers’ interests first (e.g., instead of listing your services, explain how your services pertain to your readers–how do you help them? What problems do you solve for them? How does your message relate to them?).

    Be sure you’ve thought about how you want people to respond to your message, and include enough information so they can. If you want people to take action, tell them what you want them to do. And if you want them to visit your website, be sure to include the URL. Sounds basic, I know, but it’s amazing how often people miss the easy stuff.

    Now that you’ve identified your key ideas and framed them so your audience will find your message relevant, it’s time to organize and distill.

    First, organize. What information must you provide so people can receive the full impact of your message? Have you defined terms? Does your audience need the backstory? It’s best if you can carry people along step-by-step. Finding a way to tell a compelling story can help people do more than understand, it can help them care about your message.

    Finding a way to tell a compelling story can help people do more than understand, it can help them care about your message.

    Once you’ve created your story, remove superfluous words and phrases. Here are a few ways to do so:

    Use active voice (e.g., Say, “She threw the ball” rather than, “The ball was thrown by her.”).
    Remove redundancies. Usually, you are not driving your point home; you’re boring people.
    Watch your modifiers. Replace phrases with words and use the simplest, most powerful modifier you can.  Instead of saying, “Bill Clinton, who used to be the President…,” say “Former President Bill Clinton…”  Scan your document for the word “very.” If you find it, you haven’t used a strong enough descriptor. Replace “very hungry” with “famished;” replace “very angry” with “livid.” You get the idea. You can always replace “in order to” with simply “to.”
    Sometimes the problem isn’t the writing—it’s the thinking. Let’s take something as simple as an email to employees about keeping the breakroom refrigerator clean. You could write something like this:

    It has come to my attention that food is getting left in the refrigerator to spoil. Having a refrigerator is a perk provided by our organization, but if people keep leaving old food in it, the fridge will be removed. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

    Sounds pretty snarky to me. If you write an email like this, my guess is you’ll get eye-rolling from some and righteous indignation from those who always remove their food in a timely manner. Truth is, no one wants to read a message like this. If your goal is for people use the refrigerator respectfully, then solve the problem and then rewrite the email.  How about this?

    I’ve placed masking tape and a Sharpie on the counter next to the breakroom refrigerator. Please put your name and the date on any food you put in the fridge. Each Friday, we’ll check the dates. Any food from the prior week will be discarded to avoid spoilage.

    If your thinking is muddled or ill-defined, your writing will be too. If you don’t have a point to make, no amount of fancy writing will make up for that. If you find you’re having a hard time writing, it may be that you haven’t done enough thinking. Stop writing. Push away from your computer and ask yourself, “What exactly am I trying to say?”

    If you’d like help figuring out what you’re trying to say, get in touch. There’s nothing like an objective sounding board to get you back on track.

  • Forming Habits to Achieve Your Goals

    As the weather turns colder and students return to school, many people welcome the familiarity of routine after the comparative chaos of summer. This got me thinking about the value of routines and of forming habits that help us achieve our goals. Big goals can seem daunting, but if we can get into habits that help us tackle them a little bit at a time, we can achieve great things.

    So, how long does it take to form a habit?

    A plastic surgeon from the 1950s named Maxwell Maltz noticed that his patients typically became accustomed to their new look in about three weeks. He published this information in a book titled Psycho-Cybernetics, and almost overnight, people began assuming there was something magical about this 21-day period.

    Later, researchers from the University College London published a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology indicating that the time to form a habit varies. The study found that the average time to form a habit was closer to 66 days, but with wide variety–some forming habits in just a few weeks and others taking months to adopt a new behavior. The good news is that skipping the new behavior once in a while doesn’t destroy the habit-forming process and with perseverance, you can create habits that help you achieve the things you set your mind to.

    Whether your goals are personal or professional, here’s a great little blog by Madeline Romeo that can easily be used to form all sorts of habits.

    While some people naturally excel at consistency and discipline, most of us don’t. For my part, I like creating organizational systems and planning new routines, but I find following these routines to be far less fun. I visit sites like  for inspiration, but when I try to put the methods into practice, I get mixed results. I used to beat myself up about this, but now, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and remember that today is the first day of the rest of my life. Each day is a new beginning, and I can start forming a new routine right now if I want to.


    If you’re a writer struggling to support yourself or one who isn’t making as much progress as you’d like on that novel you’ve been thinking about for years, here are a few great blogs on developing habits to help you. Entrepreneur John Rampton wrote the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers for Forbes. And Author Seth Godin offers some great advice to writers in his guest blog for Balboa Press.  If you want to read a great book on writing, consider Stephen King’s On Writing. It is both a memoir and one of the best books on writing you’re likely to find on how to write successfully.


    If you want help with your writing, let me know.

  • Five Tips on Formality in Business Communication

    In decades past, polite society was full of rules about how to behave. While many of us are happy to say, “Good riddance!” to the stilted formality that once permeated people’s daily lives, the lack of clarity around etiquette these days can leave us wondering just how formal we should be, especially in unfamiliar business settings. At Google, people wear jeans to work and sleep in nap pods during their breaks. At many law firms, even the most junior associates where business suits and no one is napping. So how formal should you be?

    When it comes to business communication, here are some tips.

    1. Respond in Kind – If you have the benefit of responding to—rather than initiating—written correspondence, it is generally safe to mimic the formality afforded to you. If someone addresses you as Mr. or Ms., do the same for them. If they use your first name, it’s usually safe to use theirs. If you are responding to a leader in the field, or to someone who would have authority over you were you to work together, pay attention to how they sign off. If a college professor addresses you, the student, by first name, but signs off with Dr. Jones, use his or her more formal title in your reply.
    2. Contractions – If you are writing a formal proposal, a white paper, or any other formal document, do not use contractions. If you are writing an email, a blog with a casual tone, or a social media post, I think contractions are fine. In fact, I think they can make writing more readable.
    3. Good Grammar – If you are texting a friend, feel free to use abbreviations and forget about capitalization; however, if you’re writing almost ANYTHING else, at least in business, use capital letters and proper punctuation. Foregoing grammar can easily result in miscommunication.
    4. Consider Your Audience – People in the upper echelons of business are often at least 50 years old. Many of them graduated from college without touching a computer, and when they joined the business world, communication was a more formal affair. They are likely to interpret a more formal tone as a sign of respect, which is never a bad thing.
    5. Non-Verbal Communication – While I’ve focused on writing, remember that you communicate in many other ways, consciously and subconsciously. The way you dress, your posture, the formality of your spoken language (“Nice to meet you, sir.” v. “Hey man, great to meet you.”), and many other non-verbal cues will speak volumes about how seriously you take this interaction. A hospital CEO recently told me that a prospective department director showed up for an interview in her “traveling clothes,” which resembled sweat pants. The CEO wondered, “If the prospective employee couldn’t be bothered to dress up for the interview, would she dress up for work? Would she disregard other common courtesies? Did she even care about getting this position?”

    If you feel unsure about your writing and grammar, here are a few of my favorite resources:

    Whether we like it or not, we’re constantly judged on our communication skills, so before you send that email or publish that blog post, consider your audience and communicate with a tone and formality that will help you achieve your communication goals.

    If you would like some coaching to improve your writing, get in touch!

  • Keep Advertising Copy Short and Focus on Solving Problems

    Advertising copy must be compelling enough to inspire people to act, but not so annoying that it turns them off. It’s a delicate balance. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the term “copy,” it refers to the main text of an advertisement.)

    The first rule of advertising is to make sure you know who you’re trying to reach. The second rule is to make sure you leave no doubt as to how you solve their problem.

    In an era when attention spans are short and distractions are ever-present, it’s challenging to write a headline that engages people enough to keep them reading through to the fine print. That’s why it’s so important to write with your audience’s perspective in mind. 

    Let’s say you represent a health center that just recruited a new pediatrician, and you want to attract more patients. Your target audience is parents, of course, because kids don’t choose their own doctors. So, how can you help parents meet their goals? Since most parents want to keep their children as healthy as possible, effective ad copy will demonstrate how your pediatrician helps them do so.

    An ad that says, “We have a new pediatrician” or “Now accepting new patients” doesn’t tell parents what they want to know: is the pediatrician well-trained, caring, and dedicated? Does he or she share their values? Will that pediatrician be available to answer questions outside office hours? Does he or she have experience with children like theirs (toddlers, chronically ill, behaviorally challenging, etc.)?

    While you may not be able to answer all those questions in one headline, you can begin to assuage parents’ concerns by addressing a core frustration: feeling rushed. Parents want to know their clinician will listen carefully and give their child’s problem the consideration it deserves. A far more effective ad might say, “Welcoming Dr. Jones, a board-certified pediatrician who takes time with every patient.” This may not seem dramatically different from the headlines above, because you have to distill your message to so few words in an ad, but this one helps reassure parents that Dr. Jones will take the time required to help your child feel better.

    Every time you advertise, consider how you solve your customers’ problems. How are their lives better, easier, healthier, more fun, more stylish, or less stressful as a result of your product or service? Don’t make people figure it out on their own. Spell it out for them.

    Want help? Get in touch.

  • Why Won’t They Publish My Press Release?!

    When you spend time to write a press release, it’s really frustrating when it doesn’t get published. Here are common reasons press releases don’t get published.

    1. The press release isn’t timely.
    2. It isn’t significant.
    3. It isn’t relevant to the readers (geographically or via some affiliation).
    4. There’s no one famous or prominent involved.
    5. There’s no appeal to human interest.

    Here’s how you can avoid these mistakes.

    Make sure the lede (opening sentence) includes elements that make a press release newsworthy (i.e., timely, significant, relevant, linked to a prominent person, or human-interest related). Then do your best to predict the questions people are likely to ask, and use the press release to answer them. A press release is different from promotional writing–save that for brochures and advertisements. In a press release, if you want to include an opinion, be sure to attribute it to someone. Otherwise, stick to the facts.

    Let’s consider a couple examples.

    In a press release about a high school student garnering a prestigious award, here’s a press-worthy opener:

    Eureka, California – On March 29, Raya Mahony became one of only two South Fork High School seniors ever to receive a coveted “Stellar Student” award from the Rising Stars Foundation.

    In the Southern Humboldt County region of Northern California where the press release was published as a news story, the press release highlighted a remarkable accomplishment by a local student, a verifiable fact. The word “coveted” is a little risky, but if you can prove that many people apply and few people win, it’s a legitimate claim.

    Here’s a lede that would be rejected immediately:

    Eureka, California – On March 29, the Rising Stars Foundation recognized Raya Mahony for her amazing accomplishments; Mahony is the kind of student and human being who makes students around her become better themselves, both academically and personally.

    In fact, Raya is just this type of student and deserves these accolades; but to include them, they must be attributed to the person who said them. As most writing does, press releases benefit from the old adage, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s best to use the student’s accomplishments to demonstrate her exceptional nature, rather than simply saying she’s exceptional. Like this:

    Mahony has maintained an unweighted GPA of 4.0 while serving in several leadership positions. She is the Associated Student Body (ASB) president, and has been an ASB member for three years. She is the president of 4-H, where she has participated in leadership for three years and has shown animals since she was seven years old. For the past two years, Mahony has served as president of the local chapter of the California Scholarship Federation.

    She has served the global community through the local chapter of Interact, holding the position of International Foreign Affairs Director and chairing the Tanzania Solar Energy project, which raised funds to purchase solar panels for a school in Africa.

    Then let someone who knows her bring it all home with a quote. Like this:

    “Academically and personally, Raya Mahony is genuine and committed; she is an impressive young woman. Insightful and diligent, interactive but not demonstrative, Raya is the kind of student and human being who will make students around her become better themselves, both academically and personally,” said English teacher William Richards.

    As long as you stick to the facts and write in the classic inverted pyramid style (putting the most important information first), you should be fine. For more information about how to write a press release that will get published, click here.

    If you would rather have someone write your press releases for you, feel free to get in touch.

  • 5 Writing Tips Everyone Should Know

    Even though most of us sat through countless hours of English instruction, we don’t feel confident in our writing. Why is that, and how can we fix it?

    English is a tough language to master. It seems to break the rules as often as it follows them, and if you don’t reinforce those rules constantly, they can slip away from you. Thanks to Microsoft Word, we can figure out when we’ve misspelled a word (that little squiggly red line is a lifesaver). MS Word also recommends helpful hints about sentence structure, but unless you understand the underlying grammar, you accept MS Word’s correction at your peril.

    So, how can you improve your writing? Here are some helpful hints

    1. Avoid mistakes by proofreading. Ideally, you can trade proofreading duties with a trusted colleague, since our brains often trick us into reading what we meant to write rather than what we put on the page.
    2. Be sure you know what you want to say; then say it. By all means, tell a good story; just be careful you don’t get so caught up in the storytelling that your readers can’t figure out what your point is.
    3. Use active voice. Active voice means the subject of the sentence does something rather than having something done to him/her or it.
      Passive voice: The very best cancer is the one that is prevented and the second best is the one that gets caught early.
      Active voice: The very best cancer is the one we prevent and the second best is the one we catch early.
    4. Choose strong verbs and powerful adjectives. Use words that make your writing come to life, words that enliven the senses–help people smell the raindrops as they hit the pavement and feel the watermelon juice as it runs down their chins.
    5. Get rid of your fancy filter. Use straightforward language, and use as few words as possible to drive your point home. People aren’t impressed by a bunch of words they don’t know. They are impressed when you can explain a complex idea clearly and thoughtfully.

    Many grammar rules are black and white; either you’re right or you’re wrong. However, as language evolves, writers have to decide when they want to adopt new words, for example. Remember when the word “email” had a hyphen? And have you noticed that “health care” is becoming “healthcare”? The key to navigating these gray zones is to decide how you want to manage the grammar conundrum and then be consistent. Happily, you do not need to figure out how to proceed on your own. If you’re a journalist or blogger, I recommend the Associated Press Stylebook. If you’re a book author, I’d go with the Chicago Manual of Style.

    If you’re not sure whether your writing is good, try reading it aloud. If it’s awkward to read, then it’s awkward. Period. Rewrite it.

  • 10 Tips for Effective Email Every Professional Should Know

    Email is the most common form of business communication, so it can have a big impact on your productivity and your reputation. Well-written emails that are clear, concise, and compelling can keep projects moving and enhance your relationships. However, when emails include typos, struggle to get to the point, or strike the wrong tone, they can do more harm than good.

    Here are some tips to provide high-impact messages and avoid embarrassing mistakes.

    1. Choose an informative subject line
      Choosing an engaging subject line that describes what your email is about increases the chances your email will be opened promptly. It also makes your email easy to find later. (Don’t forget to change the subject line when replying to an email if the topic of the email has changed.)
      Don’t: Hi! Are you busy on Tuesday?
      Do: Can we meet Tuesday at 3 pm about Project X?
    2. Be casual, but professional
      Although email is more casual than most written correspondence, it should employ a respectful tone and include proper spelling and grammar. As a rule, it’s best to avoid emoticons, all-caps, acronyms, and exclamation points. And don’t be the boy who cried, “Wolf!” If an email is truly urgent, say so; otherwise, just be patient.
      Don’t: Hey! Did you get my message? I TOTALLY need an answer ASAP about Project X.
      Do: Just a quick reminder that the deadline for approval on Project X is this Friday. Have you had an opportunity to review the information I sent?
    3. Only use email when appropriate
      Do NOT discuss emotionally charged or controversial issues via email.
      -Do NOT try to manage projects that require extensive discussion via email. Email is good for short, finite communication.
      -Do NOT include confidential information. “Reply All” and “Forward” are many people’s favorite buttons, and hackers love a to add social security numbers or credit card numbers to their collections.
    4. Get right to the point
      The subject line should cue up your message, and your first line in the body of the email should get right to the point–ideally in a compelling or humorous way. Tell your reader who you are (if they don’t already know), and what you want. If you expect them to take action, you’d best demonstrate how that action benefits them.
      Don’t: I started my company ten years ago, and we’ve been growing ever since. I think you’d really like my product, but first, let me tell you about how we got where we are…
      Do: After ten years in the business, we’ve honed our product to meet the needs of clients like you. Here’s how…
    5. Keep attachments small and essential
      If you must attach a file, be sure it is not too big. People are wary of files, as they should be–they’re a great way to share computer viruses. If your attachment is more than a couple megabytes, consider sending it via a file transfer protocol (ftp) site like or; or consider setting up a file sharing arrangement like
    6. Use a signature line
      I am always stunned when people do not provide contact information in their emails when it is so easy! You can set your email software to include your signature information automatically for each new email (or for all emails, including responses). List your name, title, company, website, and phone number. If you include a logo or image file of any kind, be aware that it may not display properly (if it displays at all).
    7. Proofread
      This is the easiest way to avoid embarrassing mistakes. Read your email slowly at least a couple times. Look at each word individually before allowing your eyes to go to the next word; this allows you to read what you actually wrote (not what your brain thinks you wrote). Click here to see more proofreading tips.
    8. Read from the perspective of your arch enemy
      Before you hit “Send,” read your email as though its recipient will interpret everything in the most negative light. This allows you to edit the message to prevent any misunderstandings. Since emails lack the benefits of body language and verbal tone, carefully choose your words and sentence structure so they leave little room misinterpretation.
    9. Have a friend or colleague read important emails
      There’s nothing worse than finding a mistake after you hit “Send” on a company-wide email or an email to a prospective employer. If you’re writing a high-stakes email, ask a trusted friend or colleague to read it over for you.
    10. Consider implementing a company-wide email etiquette policy so everyone plays by the same rules
      Time-saving protocols work well when everyone understands them. Consider implementing a company-wide policy with accepted abbreviations and protocols about when and how to use email. Include things like requiring out-of-office messages when people are away, so clients and colleagues know what to do in someone’s absence.

    Remember, email is great, but it’s not the right tool for every type of communication. Before writing an email, be sure the message you want to convey is 1. Not emotionally charged, 2. Not easy to misinterpret 3. Doesn’t require an immediate response, and 4. Not attempting to manage a long-term, complex issue. If email is the right tool, follow these tips and you should enjoy the benefits of higher productivity and enhanced relationships.