In today’s the-world-is-flat era, few things can differentiate you better than polished communication skills. Indeed, even at the world’s top PR agencies—among people who make their living off the written word—those who can write well are shockingly few (and increasingly well-compensated).
Happily, the mechanics of good writing are eminently learnable. For most of us, the problem is readily diagnosable: our last English class was in college, and from our corporate perch today, we look down on continuing education—“Do I really need a two-hour seminar on something I do every day?”
This is what happens when you let an engineer write your website copy:
“Sorry, this page isn't available. The link you followed may be broken, or the page may have been removed.”
Gee, thanks, Facebook. Couldn’t you at least have displayed a list of similar pages? Maybe linked to some frequently asked questions? At the least, you could have conveyed a witty apology or summoned a brand-appropriate quote. And, if all else fails, bring forth a kitten pic!
Sadly, Google is no better than its neighbor to the north. Here’s what the minds of Mountain View deign to tell the poor soul who gets lost on google.com:
“404. That’s an error. The requested URL was not found on this server. That’s all we know.”
Really—that’s all? That’s the best message a company known for its NSA-like amount of data, along with its whimsical and beloved doodles, can conjure up?
Surely, you jest.
It’s the $64,000 question. Your boss—and her boss—are always asking you for ROI reports. Strangers buttonhole you at parties. Your mom has no idea how to explain what you do for a living. What’s worse, sometimes you feel as if you’re faking it.
The question: how do you measure social media? After all, if you can’t measure it, you can’t market it.
The more talks I deliver, the more I come to love PowerPoint. In fact, as a colleague recently told me, when thinking about how to explain something, I’ll often articulate how it might look in a slide deck.
Accordingly, after coming across a study making the case for SMS donations, I thought, “This would be perfect for PowerPoint!” Hence, the above SlideShare.
Just because you can write well—even brilliantly—doesn’t mean you can write well for the web. The web necessitates special know-how—not just in substance but also in style. To master the medium, start with these two tactics: perfect your headline and employ strategic headings.
For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of delivering presentations on career development to the Institute for Humane Studies. Here’s my latest, which offers six best practices to establish and protect your brand online:
Why do search engines always rank certain websites so highly? Obviously, their content is kingly, but so is their search engine optimization (SEO). Indeed, for many sites, the search-engine spiders that crawl the Web deliver a third or more of their traffic. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the Huffington Post, which in February reeled in readers with the ingenious bait: “What Time Is the Super Bowl?”
In protest, writers for publications such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Atlantic each have taken turns slugging the SEO punching bag. The headlines describe their complaint: “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.” “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.” “Google Doesn’t Laugh: Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO.”
In other words, algorithms don’t appreciate wit, irony, humor, or style. As reporter Steve Lohr put it, they’re “numbingly literal-minded.” Alas, Oscar Wilde!
These laments ring true in a big way: it is one of the definitive 21st century truisms that in addition to writing for eternity, or for one’s mother, today’s writer must also write for Google. Yet, as always, the devil’s in the metadata. The secret of stellar SEO is that you can have your cake and eat it, too; that is, you can pen pun-based headlines all day long and maintain your journalistic integrity. You just need to draft a second headline that’s straightforward and keywordy.
To convert a prospect into a client is a special skill. Sometimes you get lucky and the company has already been contemplating the services you offer. Typically, however, a prospect hasn’t envisioned the various ways you can support his brand.
This is why, when we first sit down with someone, we begin by contextualizing what it is that we do for a living. Instead of tossing around lingo such as “hashtags,” “Klout,” or “search engine optimization,” we present five simple slides on “how to think of social media” (see above).
Earlier this month, the Daily Beast broke the news that Facebook had hired a powerhouse PR agency to plant negative stories about Google in the press. The agency, Burson-Marstellar, deployed two of its big guns for the campaign: Former CNBC tech reporter Jim Goldman and former Hotline executive editor John Mercurio.
In one e-mail, Mercurio offered to help write and place an op-ed if the recipient, blogger Chris Soghoian, would lend his name to it. The savvy Soghoian asked who was bankrolling the campaign, and when Mercurio declined to say, Soghoian made the e-mails public.
What makes this incident interesting is that on one hand, Mercurio did many things right. He used a descriptive subject line: “Op-Ed Opportunity: Google Quietly Launches Sweeping Violation of User Privacy.” His first sentence succinctly and directly summarized the ask. He provided a list of talking points, each supported by a link to an independent sources. And his offer was tantalizing: Who in DC wouldn’t want a byline in the Washington Post?
This past summer, I delivered a presentation on how to write better. My intent wasn't to rehash the rules of grammar but to leave people with handy, memorable tips they could recognize and immediately apply to their own copy.